LIMA, Peru — As Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez recovers in a Havana hospital from his fourth cancer operation in 18 months, the race to succeed him has already begun back in his divided homeland.
In an emotional address Wednesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro described the six-hour procedure one day before as “complex, difficult, delicate, which tells us that the post-operative process is going to be difficult and tough.”
If anything, that was a more optimistic message than the one Chavez himself delivered over the weekend, when he effectively acknowledged the possibility that he would be unable to finish — and possibly even begin — his new six-year term, due to start on Jan. 10.
Then, Chavez formally anointed Maduro, an affable, highly loyal 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, his political heir, calling on Venezuelans to vote for him should he be unable to continue in office.
Under Venezuelan law, a new election must be held within 30 days should the president die or be incapacitated in the first four years of his term.
He added, “In Venezuela, when a person leaves an [elected] position, the last word always belongs to the people.”
His emphatic tone is understandable — if Chavez is unable to continue as president, the 40-year-old state governor Capriles appears the most likely person to succeed him.
The basketball-playing centrist ran an energetic, highly effective campaign against Chavez, earning him 44 percent of the vote to the president’s 55 percent.
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If that sounds like a crushing loss, it’s worth recalling that it is a far better performance than any other opposition candidate running against Chavez since the 58-year-old former army officer was first elected president in 1998.
Capriles was also the first candidate to run for a unified opposition to Chavez, under the umbrella Democratic Unity grouping made up of a cluster of democratic parties from the center-left to center-right.
First, Capriles will need to emerge unscathed from his own re-election campaign as governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s richest state, this Sunday. He faces a strong challenge from Elias Jaua, a former vice president and a staunch Chavez ally. Polls show that race too tight to call.
Should Capriles win in Miranda, the opposition could rally behind him for a new race for the presidency. Should he lose in his home state, analysts say, that could even herald the break-up of Democratic Unity.
Yet there remains real uncertainty surrounding the electoral impact of an early death for Chavez, whose welfare programs have made him hugely popular with the poor — and earned him the nickname of Don Regalon, or Mr Giveaway, among his critics.
Capriles — or any other opposition candidate — could find himself buried under a national wave of emotion, as Venezuelans make a legacy vote for Chavez’s “Bolivarian” revolution.
A similar surge saw Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner re-elected to the presidency in Argentina in 2011 after her husband Nestor Kirchner, who had himself termed out as president, died suddenly of a heart attack the previous year.
So far, reactions in Venezuela to Chavez’s latest diagnosis — the president has revealed that he has cancer in the pelvic area but not the precise location or kind of disease — have been mixed.
Colorful public displays of devotion have been sweeping the South American nation. But in a highly polarized country, criticism of the president is never far from the surface.
“There is an episode of barefaced lying, not to his closest followers, but to Venezuelans in general, those who voted for him specifically when, upon returning from Cuba before Oct. 7, he swore that he was totally cured,” wrote Elizabeth Araujo in a column titled “The Con” in the leftist, opposition paper TalCual.
Meanwhile, Capriles’ warning that there was no automatic succession in Venezuela could also be echoing in an unexpected quarter — the PSUV.
Despite a strong public showing of unity, reports were already emerging in Venezuela that some of the party’s senior members might contest the stricken president’s naming of Maduro as his heir apparent.
Diasdado Cabello was one name being mentioned. A speaker of Venezuela’s congress, he was unseated from the Miranda governorship in a high-profile battle with Capriles in 2008. He subsequently refused to follow Chavez’s orders to run for governor in another state, Monagas.
“No one can rule out that that act of rebellion would be repeated if presidential elections are called for 2013,” noted another TalCaul columnist, Simon Boccanegra.
Another possible rival to Maduro is Elias Jaua, a previous vice president and, like Cabello, one of Chavez’s most senior lieutenants.
But Jaua also faces his own test of fire on Sunday, after being handpicked by Chavez to run against Capriles in Miranda.
With everyone from Latin America’s leftist presidents to Hollywood radical Sean Penn wishing Chavez a full recovery, the Venezuelan leader is not short of supporters at home or abroad.
But should the stricken president sicken further, sentiment will likely be put to one side as Venezuelans are tasked with deciding whether his “Bolivarian” revolution outlives its controversial founder.