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Hugo Chavez's need for new surgery casts Venezuela into volatile political uncertainty
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' President Hugo Chavez has never been one to share decision-making authority. Now, the voluble socialist strongman and acerbic critic of the U.S. may have no choice but to designate a successor.
His announcement that he will go to Cuba within a week to remove a growth that he says is likely malignant could not come at a worse moment for the leader who is working to transform Venezuela with what he calls "21st century socialism."
With a tight re-election campaign brewing for the president, analysts said Wednesday that Venezuela could be thrown into turmoil because Chavez has resisted grooming a successor during his 13 years in power.
The result is a power vacuum that his camp will be hard-pressed to fill, especially if he is unable to campaign for the Oct. 7 elections or wins and then becomes physically incapable of governing.
"Venezuela is living with the unsettling effects of prolonged, one-man rule," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "Anything can happen."
Shifter said "a fierce power struggle and jockeying for position" is nearly inevitable for Chavez's ruling Socialist Party of Venezuela.
"I promise I will fight without respite for my life," the 57-year-old Chavez tweeted Wednesday.
A day earlier, he conceded in sharing his bad news that he could be out of action for weeks. Under the circumstances, it would be Herculean to be able to simultaneously run a government, fight to stay in office and battle cancer.
"I'm not going to be able to continue with the same rhythm," he told state TV by telephone late Tuesday. He said he would need to "rethink my personal agenda and take care of myself, confront what must be confronted."
Chavez did not mention who might replace him during an absence that cancer specialists say could last weeks if the leader has to undergo radiation treatment, as he himself said he expected. Chavez said the same doctors who removed a baseball-size cancerous tumor from his pelvic region in June would be operating on him.
He denied rumors the cancer had spread aggressively, but also said his doctors don't know if the new two-centimeter (one-inch) lesion they found over the weekend is malignant.
The former paratrooper met Wednesday with his inner circle, with a central topic bound to be how to combat the opposition's presidential candidate ' Henrique Capriles, an athletic 39-year-old state governor.
The president of the Chavez-controlled National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, told reporters that Chavez remained the ruling party's candidate.
"There is a false belief that associates cancer with death," he said. "That's not how it is, because you can overcome it with love, and the president has a bounty of that."
Chavez is expected to travel to Cuba on Friday or Saturday, Cabello said.
Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College in the United States, said Chavez is now, finally, heeding medical advice after insisting on maintaining a physically demanding schedule of travel and marathon speeches.
But is he also listening to political advice about naming a successor?
"The key question is whether he is beginning to pay attention to advice from all those forces, ranging from family members to political operators, telling him to come forward with a succession plan," Corrales said.
There are no obvious choices, since Chavez has constantly demoted anyone who could outshine him, Corrales added.
During his periods of convalescence last year, Chavez delegated some administrative duties to Vice President Elias Jaua and to his planning and finance minister, Jorge Giordani.
But Jaua apparently has lost favor since then, along with another longtime member of Chavez's inner circle, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro. Both still hold their posts, but Chavez recently demoted them by choosing them as his party's candidates in gubernatorial elections next year.
One possible stand-for the president is his older brother, Adan, who is governor in Chavez's home state of Barinas. He appeared at Chavez's side Tuesday.
The military, from which Chavez sprung, also could provide someone to fill in for the president.
"It could very well be that this is going to be a military-brokered succession, not unlike Egypt," said Corrales. "At the first sign of chaos we could see the military indirectly or even explicitly playing a big role."
One powerful close confidant of Chavez likely to play a leading role is Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a former intelligence chief named as defense minister last month by the president.
The United States, which has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since 2010, takes a dim view of Rangel Silva. He is one of four members of Chavez's inner circle who Washington put on its Foreign Narcotics Kingpins list in 2008, accusing them of helping drug gangs and supplying leftist Colombian rebels with arms.
Still, even many fervent supporters of Chavez, whose political backbone is Venezuela's poor majority, have doubts that he would choose a successor, even if his health significantly deteriorated.
"My 'comandante' isn't going to delegate, even if he were in a wheelchair," Maria Teresa Diaz, 65, said of Chavez.
Physicians consulted by The Associated Press said it was impossible to offer an assessment of Chavez's health based on the limited information provided Tuesday by the leader, who had four rounds chemotherapy from July to September.
But some said finding a malignant tumor in the same place one was removed less than a year ago was not a good sign.
"A relapse within a year means the tumor is very aggressive," said Dr. Sebastian Quintero, a leading Colombian oncologist.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that Capriles remains state governor.)