CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hugo Chavez has built an entire career on being Venezuela's one-man political messiah. Now his precarious health appears to be prompting him to look into his inner circle for those he thinks are most capable of managing his socialist revolution while he undergoes cancer treatment.
Those standing out include Chavez's elder brother, his foreign minister, his energy minister and a few trusted military officers, both current and former. They are all time-tested loyalists and committed leftists. Yet if Chavez has his mind set on any particular heir to power, he hasn't yet sent clear signals as to whom it would be.
His mentor Fidel Castro stepped down in 2008 in favor of his brother and vice president Raul, but that line of succession had been openly announced for decades.
Any lieutenant Chavez might anoint in the short-term would need to command support in potentially tumultuous times. But Thursday evening, Chavez led a Cabinet meeting and appeared very much in control and vigorous, discussing housing and railway projects, and saying he backs Vice President Elias Jaua and his military commanders.
"There are so many rumors," Chavez said, denying talk of divisions between his allies and recent Venezuelan news reports predicting Cabinet changes. As for his health, he said, "the situation has been difficult, but we're climbing the hill."
"We will live," Chavez said to the applause of his closest allies.
If his illness were to worsen, Chavez would clearly want to place the reins of his Bolivarian Revolution movement in safe hands.
Possible candidates include his elder brother, Adan, who is governor in Chavez's home state of Barinas. Blood ties mean a lot to the 56-year-old president, and his brother is a trusted confidant who has stepped up his appearances at the president's side, both after his June 20 cancer surgery in Cuba and upon his return to Caracas this week.
"It would seem his brother is plan B for the government," said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Yet Adan Chavez, a former university professor who speaks invariably in monotone, lacks the president's quick wit, charisma and stage presence.
"He's not a natural leader and his future in politics depends entirely on the whims of the president," said Eduardo Semtei, a political commentator and former Chavez insider. Semtei met and befriended Adan Chavez in the early 1970s, when both belonged to leftist political groups with ties to Marxist guerrillas.
Adan Chavez startled some while his brother was in Cuba by saying party supporters should not rule out armed struggle in the future, a remark some interpreted as a willingness to hold on to power by force if necessary.
Semtei said he thinks that Adan Chavez is not very popular within the leadership of the ruling party. There are also doubts about how the military would accept the president's brother.
The lack of an obvious successor is a dilemma of Chavez's making. All of the president's allies derive their power purely from Chavez and his endorsement. Most are uncharismatic loyalists who have been promoted through the ranks of Chavez's supporters and have little if any independent support base, though some have experience as political power-brokers within the movement.
Two of the most visible and resilient leaders of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, both visited Chavez in Cuba and were among the select few who welcomed him home at the airport upon his return.
Maduro and Ramirez have remained at their posts longer than any of their counterparts, and both have proven to be capable of rallying the party, though as with all their colleagues, authority flows largely from the trust Chavez places in them as managers and defenders of his interests.
Maduro, who years ago was a bus driver and union leader, often speaks on Chavez's behalf and has been top diplomat since 2006. He previously showed political finesse as National Assembly president.
Chavez has entrusted the state oil company that is Venezuela's cash cow to Ramirez, a mechanical engineer, since shortly after the president's triumphant return to power following a short-lived 2002 coup.
While Chavez was away in Cuba, Jaua, Ramirez and other prominent allies increased their public appearances at rallies, insisting the movement would stay united.
"Of the names mentioned it strikes me that Rafael Ramirez might be in the best position to hold Chavismo together," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "Still, he is no Chavez. No one is."
Some analysts say few if any of the second-tier civilian Chavista leaders appear to command respect within the military the way the president, a former lieutenant colonel, does.
Several current and former military officers could emerge as power brokers in a transition, even if none now seem to have roles high profile enough to make them possible successors.
Chavez often says he still considers himself a soldier in a larger battle for the country's future. And he places great trust in some of the military allies who joined him in a failed 1992 coup attempt more than eight years before he won the presidency.
They include a former intelligence chief, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who was promoted last year to general-in-chief and who is the military's strategic operations commander. Rangel was with Maduro and Adan Chavez when they held one of their first televised meetings with the president in Cuba after his surgery to remove a tumor from his pelvic region.
Rangel says little in public and has a controversial past. Last year, Chavez publicly defended Rangel when he was criticized for saying in a newspaper interview that neither the military nor the public would accept an opposition victory in the 2012 presidential vote.
A 2008 U.S. Treasury Department accused him and two other members of Chavez's inner circle of helping leftist Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug trafficking operations. Chavez dismissed those accusations as politically motivated.
Chavez's closest allies haven't always lasted in his inner circle.
Another former army officer who joined the 1992 coup attempt, Diosdado Cabello, used to be vice president and was once perceived by many Venezuelans as Chavez's closest confidant. He is still thought to have close ties with part of the military, though his standing with Chavez may have diminished when he lost a 2008 state governor re-election bid to an opposition leader.
Nevertheless, Cabello was among those who attempted to fill the gaping void while Chavez was away in Cuba. Making a televised speech two days before Chavez's return to Caracas, Cabello warned against the threat of personal ambitions within the political movement.
"Nobody should fall into temptation," Cabello said. "Many things have occurred during these 12 years: People who were believed to be extremely trustworthy, and they ended up in the garbage heap of the opposition."
Critics have suggested that Cabello, who has not appeared in public with Chavez since the president's return, has shown his own ambitions as a power-broker within the movement.
"We are obliged to send the commander a message of monolithic unity," Cabello said.
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.