Hugo Chávez might have quelled rumors last week that he was near death by appearing on television looking relatively robust, but some recent political moves have left many in Caracas wondering if he'll make it to the presidential elections -- and even more alarming, what will happen to Venezuela if he doesn't.
In recent months, Chávez has appointed two top military figures to politically powerful posts. As he returns to Cuba this week for more treatment, some now ask if he's laying the groundwork for a military junta to seize power if he dies.
"People are obviously positioning themselves," Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, tells CNN. "Chavez is very well placed to announce his successor. But he really doesn't want to name his successor because it would be an indication that not only is he a lame duck, but he's a goner."
The most likely military figure to grasp power in a Chávez vacuum looks to be Diosdado Cabello, a former army ally who took part in Chávez's failed 1992 coup attempt.
Since January, Chávez has named Cabello the head of the national assembly and the number two in Chávez's own political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Later the same month, Chávez named Gen. Rangel Silva minister of defense (an appointment not exactly embraced in the States, considering that American officials have accused Silva of being a "drug kingpin" who helped use the Venezuelan military to ferry drugs through the country.)
Are these moves ordinary political shuffling by Chávez? Or is something more sinister afoot as the strongman's cancer worsens?
"Everyone knows the president's health is delicate, so his setting up the Council of State now cannot be good news," John Magdaleno, a Caracas political scientist, tells Agence France Presse. "It might be used as a potential transitional body, or in case the president becomes incapacitated and cannot work, or to prepare some extraordinary measures."
One thing Chávez's illness hasn't done: given his opponent a big boost at the polls.
A new poll in Caracas shows Chávez still holds a double-digit lead over his challenger, Henrique Capriles, besting him 45-31.
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