Analysis: Trio of Chavez protégés hold key to Venezuela's future

Mon Jan 14, 2013 1:06am EST
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By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) - A month after President Hugo Chavez left Venezuela for a fourth cancer operation, his commanding control over the government is slowly moving into the hands of an unlikely trio of protégés who may shape the future of the oil-rich nation.

Chavez's cancer has left him in serious condition in a Cuban hospital and created a leadership vacuum after 14 years of cult-of-personality socialism that has made him a dominant figure in Latin America.

Given a micro-managing style that put an inordinate number of decisions in his hands, and his unique ability to control an alliance that ranges from union activists to military officers, that leadership is now being shared out among his top allies.

Vice President and anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, Congress chief Diosdado Cabello, and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez - a political heir apparent, a soldier and an energy boss - are emerging as the architects of a transition to post-Chavez rule.

"I do not think that within the party there will be a single heir that can fill the president's shoes," said Heinz Dieterich, a Mexico-based sociologist and former Chavez advisor who split with the president over how to create a theoretical underpinning for his "21st century socialism."

The three leaders' gradual assertion of influence signals they are in a test run of how to share responsibilities in the absence of Chavez, who was unable to swear in for a new six-year term on January 10 after being hit by a severe lung infection linked to his operation in early December.

The balance of power between the three - who have not always gotten along - and their ability to work together will be crucial in determining whether Venezuela continues on Chavez's path of radical socialism or evolves toward a moderate Brazil-style leftist administration.

Outraged critics say Venezuela is rudderless and subordinated to the whims of Cuba, where Chavez is receiving treatment under the shroud of state secrecy. The troika gathered there on Sunday to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro.   Continued...

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro (L) arrives with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello during the assembly inauguration in Caracas January 5, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins