RPT-ANALYSIS-Trio of Chavez proteges hold key to Venezuela's future

Brian Ellsworth
Reuters Middle East

(Repeats with no changes to text)

* V.P., Congress boss and oil minister are key players

* Trio slowly assume leadership as Chavez remains in Cuba

* President not been seen since Dec. 11 cancer surgery

CARACAS, Jan 14 (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 proteges 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 Jan. 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.

"We know which commander they're taking orders from," said

opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado.

If Chavez left office, new elections would be called within

30 days, with Maduro running as the Socialist Party candidate.

But the government has provided only minimal details of Chavez's

condition, with no concrete evidence that he is even conscious.

Authorities say there is no need for a formal medical review

to determine if he is fit to continue governing, and they appear

willing to leave him in charge of the country - perhaps in a

vegetative state - for weeks or even months.

The transition is being closely watched by oil companies

itching for greater access to the world's largest crude

reserves, as well as by foreign investors who have bought

Venezuela's high-yielding and widely-traded bonds.

Maduro, an ex-union activist and former bus driver turned

foreign minister and now president-in-waiting, has Chavez's

blessing as the ruling Socialist Party's future leader.

Seen as a moderate given to dialogue, he has already made

initial contact with Washington after years of frayed ties with

the United States. He could ease the country's polarization by

mending fences with the opposition, but risks the wrath of

radicals if he moves too quickly.


Cabello, a former soldier who took part in a failed 1992

coup that first made Chavez famous, has much greater sway than

Maduro among a crucial military faction that controls several

key ministries and a swath of state governorships.

As president of Congress, he would be in line to lead a

caretaker government if Chavez were to die or step down - making

him a potential king-maker. He is seen as more intransigent than

Maduro, and critics liken him to a thug. One opposition leader

this week flippantly referred to him as "Al Capone."

Dieterich has said he believes Cabello would betray Chavez

in much the same way that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin

consolidated control over the Communist Party even though

revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin before dying had left

instructions that Stalin should be removed.

Chavez's allies have furiously criticized Dieterich's view

and Maduro and Cabello make repeated displays of unity, hugging

uncomfortably during televised broadcasts and shooting down

rumors of rivalry, to sometimes awkward effect.

"People are worried that Diosdado and I are killing each

other," Maduro boomed at a rally the day Chavez missed his

inauguration. "We're more united than ever. We're killing each

other with love for the people and loyalty to Chavez."

Ramirez, who also runs state oil company PDVSA, has started

to exert his own influence with adulatory declarations of

support for Chavez and vows that oil workers will be forever

faithful to the president's self-styled revolution.

He is a power broker because of his control over the

petrodollars that finance Chavez's much-loved social programs.

He also heads a massive campaign to build homes for tens of

thousands of families that helped Chavez win re-election.

"PDVSA belongs to the people and will remain in the people's

hands," he told a meeting last week of union officials and

company directors. "Being loyal to President Chavez means being

loyal to what he says and does. Now more than ever there is

unity among the revolutionaries."

Ramirez's own views are often overshadowed by his fierce

dedication to Chavez, though his years of experience negotiating

with foreign oil companies may help him build bridges with the

opposition if the political environment changes.

Though he has overseen some of the world's most acrimonious

nationalizations, he has also been able to win investment from

energy giants when it was in the government's interest.

Opposition leaders want much more information on Chavez's

condition and, if he is unable to serve as president, they say a

caretaker must be named and new elections called.

Chavez's team says he is recovering but the opposition

insists Maduro, Cabello and Ramirez are preparing for a

post-Chavez era if he is unable to return.

"It's obvious a transition is in place. The question is, how

long can it go on?" said local analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Enrique Andres

Pretel in Caracas and Gabriel Stargardter in Mexico City.;

Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray. Desking by

Christopher Wilson)

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