See a slide show of our favorite photos of El Presidente.
Until now, the most frequently asked question about Hugo Chávez's virtually one-man rule in Venezuela was whether he would be prepared to relinquish power if he lost an election. That question has become even more germane in view of next year's presidential contest, as El Presidente faces a country arguably in worse shape than at any moment since his regime began a dozen years ago.
Today, however, another crucial question -- one that has seldom been posed -- looms: What would happen if Chávez were incapacitated and unable to serve as president? What if he died while in office? Who would succeed him? How would a successor be chosen?
The current mystery surrounding the usually omnipresent and glib 56-year-old former paratrooper has given rise to such questions. Since June 10, Chávez has been hospitalized in Havana, Cuba. Senior Venezuelan sources reported that Chávez had surgery on a pelvic abscess. A spokesman now says he plans to return to Caracas by July 5 -- just in time for Venezuela's bicentennial, when Chávez is scheduled to host a major gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders.
Yet rumors and speculation about Chávez's condition and intentions abound. Reports from Havana have been few and far between and lacking in any detail. Some believe Chávez is actually as fit as ever, but is relishing being the center of attention and is getting ready for a return to cheering throngs. Others cite last week's declarations of Venezuela's foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, that Chávez is "fighting for his health" and reports that his daughter and grandchildren visited him in Havana; they are convinced that his condition is far more serious than the public has been led to believe.
Whatever theory turns out to be correct, Chávez's first prolonged absence from the reins of power suggests just how precarious Venezuela's institutions now are. It also shows the extent to which the country relies on his arbitrary rule. True, the 1999 Constitution says that the country's vice president should take over in the event that the president becomes incapacitated. But few can imagine strict adherence to rules -- certainly not in an era when Chávez has basically rewritten the book at his fancy -- not to mention it's hard to see the nondescript Elías Jaua succeeding the president.
Instead, within the broad movement -- some might call it a sensibility -- known as Chavismo that underpins Chávez's ongoing Bolivarian revolution, it is almost certain that a fierce power struggle would ensue. In fact, the maneuvering has already started. On Sunday, June 26, Chávez's elder brother, Adán, currently governor of their home state of Barinas, garnered attention for suggesting that "as authentic revolutionaries," Venezuelans could indeed use "other methods of struggle," including "the armed struggle," to ensure continuity in government. It's an ominous sign of battles to come within Chavismo.