CARACAS (Reuters) - Twenty years ago, Hugo Chavez launched the most powerful movement in Venezuela’s history with an improvised speech of just 90 seconds.
Bound for prison after a failed February 4, 1992, coup that was the culmination of years of conspiring within the military, the then-lieutenant colonel was allowed by his captors to address the nation to exhort fellow dissident soldiers to surrender.
Wearing what would become his trademark costume of red beret and green military fatigues, Chavez took advantage of their mistake.
“Unfortunately, for now, the objectives we had planned were not obtained,” said Chavez, electrifying Venezuelans with his hint of an unfulfilled radical agenda to eradicate poverty and corruption in the South American OPEC member.
Now, a battle with cancer has weakened him and is posing an existential threat to “Chavismo”: the unruly movement of hardline leftists, conservative military men, political pragmatists and opportunistic entrepreneurs who came together to fulfill the words from 1992.
Nearly a year after Chavez announced his diagnosis, only his closest confidants and an inner circle of doctors know the exact nature of his condition, beyond its location “in the pelvic region.”
Efforts by reporters, other doctors and even bondholders to predict whether the socialist stalwart will recover or die - or what cancer he has - still look like no more than educated guesswork.
That has turned the once theoretical debate over “Chavismo without Chavez” into a very real enigma with major political and economic repercussions.
The future of Chavismo is closely watched by oil companies outside Venezuela seeking improved access to the world’s largest crude reserves, investors excited about a more free-market government, and regional allies such as Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua who benefit from Chavez’s politically inspired largesse.
With no way of knowing for certain what ails “el comandante,” all are asking variants of the same question: Will he survive cancer and, if not, can Chavismo continue without its founder and guiding light?
“It seems, unfortunately, the health of the president is the health of the revolutionary process,” said Nicmer Evans, a pro-government analyst who has been warning the ruling Socialist Party that over-dependence on Chavez and personalization of the state make it vulnerable in any scenario without him.
If the president’s foes have their way, Chavismo will end the same day his rule does. Supporters say he is recovering but insist Chavismo would continue in its current form even beyond him, just with different men leading Chavez’s vision.
Chavismo could also simply metamorphose into a diluted and nostalgic philosophy like “Peronism” in Argentina.
Chavez, whose indefatigable optimism has helped him defeat challenges ranging from a military coup to an oil industry shutdown, has insisted his recovery is a fait accompli.
He has been increasingly prominent in the last two weeks, calling into state media and appearing in public several times, emphatically asserting that he is on course for another six-year term where he will deepen socialism in Venezuela.
Nearly two-thirds of the country agree he will make it to the October 7 presidential elections, according to polls that also show him handily beating opposition challenger Henrique Capriles to win a third term. Most surveys give him a double-digit lead.
“Whatever my personal destiny is, the revolution already has its inertia. Nothing and nobody will be able to stop it,” the 57-year-old president said after his latest operation in February to treat a recurrence of cancer eight months after surgeons removed a baseball-sized tumor from his pelvis.
Nevertheless, the unusually long silences for the famously loquacious leader, his months of flying back and forth to Havana for treatment, and even a tearful plea that God spare his life, have shed doubt on the future of his movement.
Failure to consolidate “Chavismo without Chavez” could bring prolonged instability - a power struggle between factions, civil unrest - and potentially unsettle the oil industry.
For millions of poor Venezuelans, the combination of Chavez’s insurrectionist past, humble roots and fiery discourse demanding social justice give him a quasi-religious status.
“The role of strongmen in certain historical eras is to move the masses: to be a representative of the masses without any formal legitimization,” Chavez told historian Agustin Blanco in 1995 when discussing his evolution from failed coup leader to virtual pop icon.
Presenting himself as an inheritor of the ideals of South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez has portrayed his movement as an extension of the 19th century struggle to end Spain’s colonial rule.
Chavez has enjoyed a series of successes at the ballot box and stayed in power for 13 years, helped by the largest wave of oil revenue in the country’s history that has bankrolled an unprecedented social spending crusade.
He cemented his status as a provocateur of Washington early on through an alliance with Cuba, undermining the U.S. embargo there by providing favorably priced oil.
Chavez drew on a mixed bag of ideological influences, from 19th century Venezuelan land crusader Ezequiel Zamora to Argentine radical Norberto Ceresole whose denial of the Holocaust made him perennially controversial.
The Argentine’s vision for a union of “the strongman, the people, and the armed forces” helped shape Chavez’s fusion of military authoritarianism with grassroots citizens’ networks that use state resources to fix local problems.
Those ideas helped him create direct economic and political links to citizens, sidestepping clumsy state bureaucracy through social programs known as “missions” and community councils that solve local problems with state funds.
It also gave the military an unprecedented role in governance during Venezuela’s post-dictatorship modern history, from 1958, putting soldiers and officers at the helm of everything from social development projects to state-backed agricultural schemes.
“Chavez believes in obedience more than anything else, which is why he depends so much on the military world,” said Raul Salazar, a former defense minister under Chavez now in the opposition. “The armed forces are fractured because they fulfill a strange mix of administrative functions.”
For leftist activists, Chavismo politics are the apex of how to reinvent the state as the driver of social change. For critics, they are a thinly veiled excuse to put state institutions and the country’s purse strings in the hands of one man.
“Chavismo has become much more than a party or a movement,” Diosdado Cabello, National Assembly president and one of Chavez’s closest allies, told Reuters. “The relationship between Chavez and the people goes much beyond the merely political, it goes straight to the spiritual.”
His links to the country’s downtrodden echo a century-long history of Latin American populism, perhaps most famously embodied by Argentina’s Juan Peron. But his intense involvement in government decisions large and small is unprecedented since the end of Venezuela’s last dictatorship.
From personally approving scores of projects carried out by a state investment fund totaling some $90 billion, to intensely debating where to build the parking lot of a Caracas community center, Chavez’s micromanagement has earned his government the moniker of a “hyper-presidentialist” system.
For this reason his cancer, more than the illness of one man, is a monumental threat to a system built around him.
Two simple campaign posters hung along a Caracas highway were enough to fill newspapers for almost a week.
The signs featured Chavismo’s signature red backdrop, a crowd of supporters in the background, and a picture of his ally Cabello with the words “Diosdado Presidente” beneath.
Government supporters quickly pulled them down, the assembly president denounced it as a desperate opposition plot, and a state TV talk-show host even accused an anti-Chavez newspaper editor of staging the incident.
The furious reaction highlighted Chavismo’s sensitivity to even the slightest discussion of succession, which has been expunged from all official discourse.
“Plan A, B, C, D, all the way to Z is Chavez,” Cabello said.
Yet potential replacements are quietly waiting in the wings.
Chavez’s constitutional successor is Vice President Elias Jaua, who emerged as a leftist student leader in Caracas during the late 1980s and early 1990s and gained prominence via his participation in frequent rock-throwing protests.
Considered very smart with a longstanding belief in radical socialism, he is, according to the polls, the most popular of Chavez’s protégés. But the 42-year-old Jaua does not have the confidence of the top military brass and has little personal charisma.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who in less than a decade rose from union organizer to cabinet minister, is increasingly perceived by bankers, diplomats and journalists as Chavez’s secretly anointed successor.
Though well-liked because of his working-class roots, Maduro, 49, is often seen as less of a decision-maker than reverend preaching the gospel of Chavismo from Bogota to Beijing.
Cabello, whose participation in the failed 1992 putsch puts him in an elite circle of Chavez allies, has excellent links with both the military and business circles. But many within Chavismo have more fear than respect for the 49-year-old former soldier.
No matter which one Chavez might tap, none would be a successor as much as a standard-bearer for the fallen president. Chavismo’s undisputed leader will continue to be Chavez, dead or alive.
Interestingly, polls show Capriles is more popular with voters than any of Chavez’s other possible successors. Analysts say that could change if the president were to appeal to voters to support a handpicked candidate.
While Chavismo would almost certainly exist in some form were Chavez to exit the political stage soon, it may have to evolve as radically as communist China’s about-face from centrally planned economy to savior of global capitalism.
“The day Chavez is no longer here, a much more collective leadership will have to be constructed, because none of today’s players have his stature,” said Jesse Chacon, a former minister and retired military officer who now heads polling firm GIS XXI.
“President Chavez’s leadership is of a kind that only appears once in centuries,” he told Reuters.
Chavez’s clear designation of a successor would be crucial to maintaining the movement intact but may not be enough to overcome the rivalry. Some of the ministers who constantly jockey for his favor are rumored to despise one another, and Chavez has at times had to intervene publicly in disputes between allies.
Even investors who bid up Venezuelan bonds in cautious anticipation of Chavez’s illness worry that a disorderly transition could be worse than a continuation of predictably interventionist socialism.
“There’s very little transparency within Chavismo to identify groups and positions,” said Jose Antonio Gil, a partner at prominent Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis. “The biggest doubt is whether they can stay united.”
Though plenty of Venezuelans fear unrest of some sort, the possibility of civil war remains remote. Unlike neighboring Colombia, which has been mired in civil war for nearly fifty years, Venezuela has historically negotiated solutions to conflict via liberal distribution of oil revenue.
Since his cancer diagnosis last year, Chavez has never publicly contemplated what his abrupt exit from the political scene would mean, beyond saying it would spell “chaos.”
He did once question the wisdom of a system that rests on a single individual. In 1995, three years before he took power, he reflected: “Could this be a curse, to leave a political movement dependent on a single man?”
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo, Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray and Prudence Crowther