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Chavez heir apparent Maduro raises his profile

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on February 20, 2013
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro (L) talks with residents during a visit to a low income neighborhood in Caracas on February 20, 2013.

The growing presence of Vice President Nicolas Maduro on state-run television, normally focused on ailing President Hugo Chavez, is giving analysts a sense that a transition is afoot in Venezuela.

With Chavez bed-ridden since December due to cancer surgery, Maduro has attended international summits, led military parades and inaugurated public works shown in countless broadcasts.

In recent days, official television featured old footage of Maduro taking part in Bolivarian revolution events as a young man, the type of biographical coverage usually reserved for Chavez.

Meanwhile, the voice of the once omnipresent and garrulous Chavez has not been heard since he went to Cuba in December to undergo his fourth round of cancer surgery in 18 months.

The only images of Chavez were shown last week, showing him in bed but smiling, flanked by his two daughters. And then he tweeted on Monday to announce his surprise return to Caracas after two months of treatment in Cuba.

He is now convalescing in a heavily-guarded military hospital here but the latest medical report on Thursday had a pessimistic tone.

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro is seen February 20, 2013
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro (C) talks with residents during a visit to the Casalta low income neighborhood in Caracas on February 20, 2013.

After 14 years of Chavez in power, the report either seeks to "raise the emotional connection" between Chavez and his loyal followers "or prepare them little by little for bad news," Luis Vicente Leon, analyst at the firm Datanalisis, told AFP.

The medical report read by the information minister said that Chavez was still suffering from respiratory problems and that the evolution "has not been favorable." He has been fitted with a tracheal tube to help him breathe.

The government is "opening more the path towards a political change," historian Margarita Lopez Maya told AFP.

The transition, she said, began on December 8 when Chavez stunned his nation by announcing that he was returning to Cuba for more surgery and appointed Maduro his political heir in case he was unable to return to power.

If Chavez is forced to give up the presidency, elections would have to be held within 30 days, and Maduro would be his ruling socialist party's candidate.

Maduro's presence in official media increased after Chavez was unable to attend his inauguration on January 10, three months after he was re-elected to a new six-year term, Lopez Maya said.

"The government needs a sense of command, cohesion and unity. The strategy is to win support in the Chavista base," she said.

"That is why he has this presence in the media and he maintains a radical message against some media and the opposition," the historian added.

A man shows a picture of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on February 20, 2013
A man shows a picture of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on February 20, 2013 as he rides past the military hospital in Caracas where the ailing leader has been hospitalized following his return from Cuba.

Although Maduro lacks the charisma and public aura that Chavez is known for, he has adopted some of his mentor's hardline rhetoric.

Maduro is a one-time bus driver who became a union leader and rose to the rank of foreign minister under Chavez. He was named vice president after the leftist leader's re-election in October.

The government, however, has steadfastly insisted that Chavez has never given up the reins of power. On Friday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua read an eight-page letter from Chavez to a South America-Africa summit held in Equatorial Guinea, saying he regretted not being there.

Chavez is "in the process of a complex illness, but he has not given up power," Jaua said.

With Chavez's health and political future uncertain, some prominent lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to "urgently" hold the public swearing-in ceremony for Chavez that had been postponed in front of media and a panel of medical experts.

The head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza, told the BBC that the president's absence must be treated as a "political" matter.

"Chavez is in Venezuela again and I suppose that it is the time for decisions," he said.

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