Indications are that Venezuela is heading for a messy succession even if Chavez survives and lingers in poor health and Vice President Nicolas Maduro becomes the de facto ruler.
Chavez named Maduro to succeed him if "something were to happen that would incapacitate me." That implies disability in illness or recovery more than imminent death.
Since he was first reported to be ill last year the health of Chavez has been the subject of officially sanctioned obfuscation, piecemeal media coverage and ambiguity about every aspect except that Chavez has cancer.
The cancer was apparently detected during surgery for a pelvic abscess in June 2011. Little else is known about the illness, the treatment for which Chavez has relied almost entirely on Cuban doctors.
Treatment in Cuba has guaranteed privacy, secrecy and news management. Only recently have Chavez aides begun to open up on the president's health. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas announced Chavez suffered complications, including internal bleeding, after the latest surgery.
"This process of recuperation ... will require a prudent time, as a result of the complexity of the surgical procedure, and also because of complications that came up in the surgery," Villegas said in a televised address.
Chavez, 58, underwent six hours of surgery Tuesday and his condition raised questions about whether he would be well enough to attend his inauguration Jan. 10.
"It would be irresponsible to hide the delicacy of the current moment and the coming days," Villegas said Wednesday in a posting on the ministry's website.
Of immediate concern to Chavez loyalists is the question whether Maduro can hold the Bolivarian revolution together and whether he can put his own stamp on a caretaker regime.
The opposition wants fresh elections if Chavez doesn't show for the January inauguration. Chavez loyalists, on the other hand, are divided over Maduro's guardianship of Chavez's populist brand of socialism.
There's an almost equal amount of worry and hope among loyalists who want the Chavez legacy to continue, but with modifications -- less fiery rhetoric, more cool-headed pragmatism.
Most loyalists agree that Chavez, who was re-elected to a fourth term last year, cannot complete his new six-year term unless he returns to full health -- an eventuality many still look forward to.
Although Maduro often repeats Chavez's populist pronouncements he is also regarded as a pragmatist and behind-the-scenes power broker between divergent power centers of the military, the unions and the ruling PSUV socialist party.
Many loyalists and opposition analysts see Maduro as the architect of Venezuela's ongoing reconciliation with Colombia, a far cry from Chavez's warnings of war in 2010-11.
However, both sides also agree that Maduro will need to grow in the job if he wants to become the next socialist strongman.
If Chavez's early departure forces a new presidential election, as the constitution requires, Maduro will find himself facing a serious rival in defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
Capriles is seeking re-election Sunday as governor of the Miranda state but the Chavez health saga has the opposition worrying the vote could go either way.
Sympathy for Chavez could dash Capriles' hopes of staying in politics and trying again for the presidency.
On the other hand, his gubernatorial re-election would pit him directly against Maduro the caretaker or the president-in-waiting.
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