CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's cancer relapse and his sudden announcement that he will undergo a fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba have thrown the country's future into question, and his designated political heir has begun trying to fill the void.
Underlining the gravity of the situation, Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke into tears on Monday at a political rally hours after Chavez flew to Havana.
"Chavez has a nation, he has all of us, and he'll have all of us forever in this battle," said Maduro, who wiped away tears while speaking to supporters. "Even beyond this life, we're going to be loyal to Hugo Chavez."
Maduro called for the president's supporters to rally behind his candidates in upcoming gubernatorial elections on Sunday, and he also inaugurated a new cable car system in a poor neighborhood. Maduro, who spoke passionately and wore the red of Chavez's socialist movement, seems set to take on a larger role as the president's chosen successor.
Chavez said for the first time on Saturday that if he suffers complications, Maduro should take over for him and should be elected president to continue his socialist movement.
Analysts say Maduro faces monumental challenges in trying to stand in for his mentor and hold together the president's diverse "Chavismo" movement, while also coping with economic problems that are weighing on the government.
Maduro may inherit political power, "but he definitely can't inherit the charisma" of Chavez, said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster who heads the Venezuelan firm Datanalisis. He said that during his nearly 14 years in office Chavez has been the glue that has held together groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions.
Leon said it's unclear if Maduro has what it takes to hold the movement together if Chavez dies. "Internal divisions could make the revolution unstable in the future," Leon said.
Political analyst Vladimir Villegas, who has known Maduro since his adolescence, said the vice president's experience years ago as a public transit union leader will probably help him in the difficult task of mediating between different groups of Chavez allies.
Maduro is considered to belong to a radical leftist wing of Chavez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government. But Villegas said he thinks Maduro will know how to contain his radicalism for practical purposes.
"The priority will be the preservation of political stability, for which it will be necessary to begin negotiating with internal groups and even with the opposition," said Villegas, who hosts a radio program. "This situation is going to force him to proceed with caution."
Villegas also said that Maduro will need to "hold on to the trust if the Chavista base and to neutralize the fractions that are going to bet... on him not doing well."
Before leaving for Havana early Monday, Chavez met with military commanders at the presidential palace and promoted his defense minister, Diego Molero, to the rank of admiral in chief. Chavez showed Molero and other military commanders a golden sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar.