CARACAS — The mystery illness afflicting President Hugo Chávez — confined to a hospital in Havana since 10 June, after an emergency operation to treat a "pelvic abscess" — has brought into sharp focus the absence of any credible replacement for the man his followers like to call the comandante-presidente.
Despite assurances by government leaders and the president's family that he is on the mend and will be home "in 10-12 days," the lack of detailed information about Chávez´s condition has brought inevitable speculation that it could be life-threatening.
Surrounded by "yes-men" and with his ruling Socialist (PSUV) party divided by faction-fighting and short on leadership, Chávez would leave a vacuum that might be impossible to fill.
"For the moment, the president is indispensable," says Nicmer Evans, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "It's not ideal, but I believe it is a political reality."
According to the official version, Chávez experienced abdominal pain while in a meeting with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and was rushed to hospital. Since then, the only images of him that have emerged have been photographs published by the Cuban newspaper Granma.
On June 14, Chávez telephoned Venezuela's state-run VTV television channel to say he was "in full control of his faculties" and recovering well. On Tuesday, his brother Adan Chávez returned from Cuba and said that the president "was recovering in a satisfactory manner." He predicted that Chávez would be back in Venezuela in 10 to 12 days.
But it was not until Thursday that messages from the president began appearing again on his normally active Twitter account. On Friday, the account was used to salute the country's military.
"A big hug to my soldiers and to my beloved people,'' the message said. "From here, I am with you in the hard work every day."
Even so, to the fury of the political opposition, he continues to sign decrees and give orders from his hospital bed. The most recent theory to circulate on the Internet is that he is suffering from prostate cancer.
Vice President Elías Jaua stood in for Chávez at Thursday's re-enactment of the decisive battle of Carabobo, which sealed Venezuela's independence from Spain. But Jaua has repeatedly rejected opposition calls that he be sworn in as interim president while the president recovers. To do so would amount to treason, he has suggested.
"The legitimate president .. is Hugo Chávez, period," Jaua said last week. "Make no mistake, gentlemen of the right, I am a man of honor, forged in the values of loyalty and friendship."
Article 234 of Venezuela's 1999 constitution states that the vice president shall take the place of the president during "temporary" absences of up to 90 days. Were Chávez to die, or be permanently incapacitated, his appointed vice president would serve out his term, pending elections due at the end of 2012.
Jaua's vehement rejection of the interim presidency is for fear of seeming ambitious, says political commentator Eduardo Semtei, a former Chavista insider and now a critic on the left.
"Anyone who disputes (Chávez´s) supremacy is automatically fired," Semtei told The Miami Herald. "Anyone who begins to stand out is brushed aside."
A former student radical, Jaua is one of the few political figures to have remained at or near the top of the greasy pole of Chavista politics for almost the whole period since 1999, the year Chávez first took office.
His main rival is former Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who as an army lieutenant, took part in a failed 1992 coup attempt led by Chávez. With gubernatorial elections also due next year, the rivalry between Jaua and Cabello was heating up, primarily over the issue of candidacies, even before Chávez fell ill.
In 2008, Cabello was defeated by an opposition candidate in a bid to be re-elected as governor of the important state of Miranda (which includes much of Caracas) and his star began to wane.
"At one point, Diosdado controlled 13 out of 23 ministries," Semtei said. "Now, he has none."
The former vice president's influence in the armed forces has also declined, as members of his graduating class have reached retirement age. Now a legislator, his main power base is in the PSUV, where he is identified with a tendency many Chavista insiders regard as right-wing, or reformist.
The main split in the revolution, says Evans, is between socialists and a "red-painted rightist" element, a minority of whom belong to a "new social caste or class which has enriched itself by doing business with the revolution."
If Chávez were to disappear from the scene, he said, this contradiction would come to the fore because the president is the only element holding the two sides together.
"What would follow would be an inevitable tactical retreat," Evans predicts, "which could even lead to a possible electoral setback." Nonetheless, he believes the left would eventually come out on top because, "the party grass-roots are socialist."
On one point, almost everyone agrees: among the president's leading followers, there is no one remotely capable of stepping into his shoes.
"Everything revolves around him," Semtei said. "One thing (his absence) has proven is that the entire state apparatus is virtually non-existent."
Loyalty to Chávez as an individual has taken precedence over loyalty to the party and professional skill when it comes to appointments, from cabinet minister down, admits Evans.
Semtei said that even the lack of information about Chávez's health is "one big ploy" designed to create an atmosphere where he can return triumphantly and relaunch his presidency by proving that rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. If Semtei is right, Chávez will be back in plenty of time to preside over the bicentennial of Venezuela's independence, on July 5, and the subsequent regional summit on Margarita island. If he is not, Venezuela may be in for a political earthquake.