With President Hugo Chávez almost certain to be in no condition to be inaugurated for his third six-year term on January 10, Venezuela is facing an unsure political future in which the armed forces will be the arbiters of power.
Speaking on Tuesday night from Cuba, where Chávez is suffering further complications from a respiratory infection following his fourth cancer operation, Vice President Nicolás Maduro appealed for calm, telling Venezuelans to ignore rumors about the 58-year-old socialist leader, who has not been seen nor heard in public for almost a month. Maduro has been named by Chávez as his heir apparent.
On December 28, before travelling to Cuba, Maduro addressed the country's armed forces, reading out a message purportedly from Chávez exhorting the country to continue the social reform he has implemented over the last decade, saying: "There is a military revolution underway here, and it must continue, it cannot slow down."
Heinz Dieterich, a Mexico-based German academic and former Chávez advisor, said last week in an interview with a leading Brazilian newspaper that "the Cubans will have no influence over who succeeds Chávez. The key factor is the Venezuelan military, and who in the armed forces supports Chávez."
A military revolution is underway here. It must continue, it cannot slow down"
The President's condition is being watched closely around Latin America, especially in other nations run by leftist governments, from Cuba to Bolivia, which depend on subsidized fuel shipments and other aid from Venezuela for their fragile economies.
Chávez has not provided details of the cancer that was first diagnosed in June 2011, leading to speculation among Venezuela's 29 million inhabitants and criticism from opposition leaders.
His supporters are now openly discussing the possibility that he may have to retire. Senior "Chavista" officials have said the people's wishes were made clear when the president was re-elected in October, and that the Constitution makes no provision for what happens if a president-elect cannot take office on January 10. One possibility would be to give Chávez 90 days to make a final decision, and then call new elections.
Opposition leaders say any postponement would be the latest sign that Chávez is not in a fit state to govern and that new elections should be called to choose his replacement. If Chávez had to step down, new elections would be called within 30 days.
Opposition figures believe they have a better shot against Maduro than against the charismatic president, who for 14 years has been nearly invincible at the ballot box.
Any constitutional dispute over succession could lead to a messy transition toward a post-Chávez era in the country that claims to have the biggest oil reserves in the world.
Maduro has become the face of the government in Chávez's absence, imitating the president's bombastic style and sharp criticism of the United States and its "imperialist" policies.
Venezuela's military is constitutionally neutral but Chávez has packed its leadership with loyalists. The military plays an important role in running the country, particularly its oil industry. There are three members of the armed forces in the cabinet, while 11 of the 23 provinces are run by army men. Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters' choice.
In the run-up to October's elections, the chairman of Venezuela's joint chiefs, General Wilmer Barrientos, said on national television that the military would "heed the constitution and respect the will of the people."
Chávez's own history shows how crucial, and divided, the military can be.
As a 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, he led a failed 1992 coup attempt that catapulted him to fame. A decade later, after he was pardoned and elected president, some officers joined in a plot that ousted Chávez in 2002 for two days. Both times, the coup failed because the bulk of the military refused to join in.
Before that, the last successful military rebellion was in 1958, when troops backing a popular revolt ousted President Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who had seized power in a coup. It was an era when coups were common across Latin America. There is little tolerance for them now.
Retired military officers say there are deep divisions within the armed forces. But they believe many of the roughly 8,500 rank-and-file officers who form the core of the 125,000-strong military would accept the voters' choice.
In late 2010, Defense Minister General Henry Rangel Silva angered many Venezuelans by saying neither the military nor the public would accept an opposition election victory over Chávez. During the October elections, he claimed that the opposition's candidate, Henrique Capriles, planned to dismantle the armed forces.
Capriles, a center-left former governor, had just announced that he had chosen an active general, whom he did not identify, to be his defense minister should he win. That indicated the military leadership was not entirely in lockstep with Chávez.