With doubts over Mr Chavez's political future, some Venezuelans believe power struggles are brewing between ambitious lieutenants
Chavez allies at pains to present united front
CARACAS // Hugo Chavez's most influential allies are projecting an image of unity while the president recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba, pledging to uphold his socialist movement no matter what happens.
But with doubts over Mr Chavez's political future, some Venezuelans believe power struggles are brewing between ambitious lieutenants who for years have operated in the president's shadow.
One-man rule has been the glue holding together Mr Chavez's movement, and he had not groomed any clear successor until he surprised Venezuelans with the announcement last weekend that if cancer forced him from office he wanted his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, to take over.
The president's diverse "Chavismo" movement includes groups from radical leftists to moderates, and long-hidden divisions could flare, at least behind the scenes, if Mr Chavez is no longer in charge.
Mr Maduro leads a civilian-political wing that is considered to be closely aligned with Cuba's communist government. His likely rival, Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer, is thought to have strong ties to the military - a relationship he highlighted when he spoke at a Catholic mass for Mr Chavez held at Venezuela's largest military base.
Analysts agree that political battles are likely, if not inevitable.
"It is almost certain that an intense power struggle is already under way within Chavismo," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
Mr Shifter said key figures in the president's camp, including Mr Maduro and Mr Cabello, have long had to suppress personal ambition as Mr Chavez monopolised decision-making.
"With Chavez no longer on the scene and the power vacuum exposed, the situation becomes extremely unpredictable," Mr Shifter said. "The fact that Maduro is Chavez's designated successor gives him the upper hand for the time being, but that is unlikely to last long. The others vying for power are wily and ruthless.
"From the outset, the Chavez regime has been about power ... and now all of that is up for grabs."
The 58-year-old Mr Chavez underwent his fourth cancer-related operation on Tuesday. If he were to die or be unable to continue in office, the constitution says new elections should be held within 30 days. If that happened before Mr Chavez's January 10 swearing-in, the president of the National Assembly would take over temporarily until elections were held.
Before his surgery, Chavez acknowledged such a scenario. He said on television that if he was unable to continue as president, Mr Maduro should be elected to take his place and lead the socialist movement.
That appearance by Mr Chavez, during a brief trip home after 10 days of treatment in Havana, was an indication that jostling for power had begun, said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
"If there were consensus, Chavez would not have found it necessary to fly home from Havana last weekend, in the middle of delicate medical treatments, to publicly name a successor," Mr Isacson said. "Instability could come later, if president Chavez dies and the new leader of Chavismo lacks his charisma and ability to hold the coalition together At that point, Chavismo would be likely to splinter."