Lieutenants circle as Chavez lies in hospital
Demise of Venezuelan leader may endanger Cuban communists
His hand raised, the fiery Venezuelan leader echoed the famous call to arms of his Cuban mentor.
"Fatherland, socialism or death," he proclaimed, then added with a typical flourish: "I swear by Christ, the greatest socialist in history."
That was six years ago, as 'El Commandante' was sworn in for his third term as president and blew kisses to rose petal-tossing crowds when he returned in an open-topped car to his palace to watch a military parade.
On Thursday, the ideologue – who has used his country's oil riches to bankroll Left-wing bed-fellows across Latin America, forged a cosy alliance with Iran and assailed the US from its backyard – is due to celebrate his next inauguration.
But there will be no joyous scenes. This weekend, he is lying close to death in a Cuban hospital bed, suffering from a severe lung infection after his fourth round of surgery in 18 months for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer.
His illness has already prompted a constitutional crisis in Venezuela, where he won a hotly contested election in October, but has not yet started a new term. His death would send shockwaves through the region and could endanger the survival of Cuba's communist regime, which depends on his largesse for cheap oil.
And despite their protestations of socialist solidarity, his senior lieutenants have already begun a power struggle to replace the 58-year-old former paratroop commander who has ruled the country as a one-man show since 1998.
With his demise, several factions will vie for control of the nation's political future and oil wealth: the diehard ideologues known as Chavistas; his former comrades in the armed forces; the rich and powerful Chavez clan; and the new breed of politically connected tycoons who have enriched themselves as their leader pursued his "21st-century socialism".
On Friday night, Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president and Mr Chavez's anointed successor, gave the clearest indication that the inauguration might not take place on Thursday, claiming that Mr Chavez could be sworn in later by his Supreme Court appointees, at an unspecified location – if still alive.
That stance will infuriate opposition leaders, who insist that the constitution requires Mr Chavez to take the oath on January 10 or for new elections to be called within 30 days. But their view is unlikely to win the day in a country where the ruling party dominates all branches of government.
Amid this manoeuvring, the newspaper El Nacional lamented an "information vacuum" and compared the situation to the secrecy that surrounded the deaths of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong in China. And the parade of high-profile visitors to Mr Chavez's Havana hospital has resembled the scene at the bedside of a dying mediaeval monarch.
His elderly parents and six brothers – who have flourished politically and financially on his coat-tails – have visited, as have four children by two former wives and miscellaneous other relatives.
Just as significant were the two major political figures who flew in to the Cuban capital – Mr Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly – who are now at the centre of the palace intrigues.