Venezuela's government inched closer last night to admitting what its opponents have been saying for months: Hugo Chávez is on death's door. A government spokesman announced that Chávez's condition has become "very delicate" after another round of strong chemotherapy.
More worrying, Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas also called on Chávez's supporters to "be on war footing" in case the president dies.
Let's not forget that Chávez's supporters have made waves in the past by giving small children assault rifles to wave around at rallies. His power base includes "thousands of well-armed militias," the Washington Post reports.
So any call to prepare for armed conflict after Chávez's demise shouldn't be laughed off, even for a regime prone to grandiose pronouncements.
The line of succession, if Chávez succumbs to the cancer that's put him out of the public eye ever since his re-election victory in October, is far from clear. Chávez has anointed his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his de facto successor, but National Assembly President Dionisio Cabello is arguably the more powerful figure in the party.
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Yet both men lack Chávez's charisma, and the opposition -- which came closer than ever to winning a national election under Henrique Capriles -- is likely to call for snap elections if Chávez dies.
That seems ever more likely given last night's announcement. Although Villegas didn't offer specifics, he said the president is suffering a "new, severe infection" and was "standing by Christ and life conscious of the difficulties he faces."
Other than a staged photo with his daughters at the hospital last month, Chávez hasn't been seen in public in months.