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A report by Dan Rather fires up the Caracas rumor mill

The news hit Venezuela's gossip-sphere with a thud: According to "a highly respected source close to Chávez who is in a position to know his medical condition and history," Hugo Chávez's cancer has now "entered the end stage." Since it comes from an American news legend, Dan Rather, the report that Chávez is not expected to live more than two months got people talking.

Within minutes, contracts on Chávez no longer remaining in office by the end of 2012 doubled in price on Intrade, the online prediction market. And the persistent rumbles from those who aspire to become his successor ticked up a notch.

At this late stage of the game, with Chávez mostly avoiding public appearances and rarely shown on state TV anymore, the question of his succession remains wide open. The current vice-president, left-wing extremist Elías Jaua, is widely seen as something of a lightweight, and Chávez himself announced some months ago that he would be replaced. But Rather's report leaves open the unsettling possibility that the big guy could leave the scene without leaving a clear successor in place.

Already, a few days earlier, posters had gone up around a key Caracas thoroughfare proclaiming "Diosdado Presidente!" Adorned with a large photo of chavista National Assembly Chairman Diosdado Cabello, they looked like a dirty trick played by one of Cabello's rivals to make him appear rather too eager for the job. (Cabello immediately distanced himself from the posters.) Whether the posters came from inside or outside the Chávez movement, no one can tell at this point.

Though clearly a leading contender for the top job, Diosdado (as he is universally known) would be a controversial pick. A one-time army man who collaborated with Chávez's 1992 coup attempt, he's widely rumored to have amassed a huge fortune through various front men. His deep military ties and penchant for controlling large swathes of the economy have earned him a reputation for corruption and ideological flexibility that's anathema to the president's more left-wing, Cuban-tinged, civilian supporters. They're pushing, instead, to have Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro anointed as the successor. Maduro, widely seen as the Cubans' favored candidate, is an old-style communist who rose through the ranks of the union movement and has little in common with the more profit-oriented strongmen such as Cabello. While a half-dozen other figures would also clearly love the job, the gossip increasingly pegs Maduro and Cabello as the strongest contenders.

All this wrangling, of course, is made in strict secrecy: Officially, the party line remains that Chávez is on the mend, and that he will be the Socialist candidate for the presidency this coming October. As that fiction becomes harder and harder to sustain, another inconvenient truth comes to the fore: While Chávez is a formidable campaigner with legendary charisma, both Diosdado and Maduro are gray figures, lackluster on the stump and unpopular in the country at large. While Chávez appears to be 5 to 15 points ahead of the opposition's unity candidate Henrique Capriles (depending on which poll you believe), all polls give Capriles a double-figure lead over any possible Chávez successor. The latest, by Caracas polling firm Varianzas, gives Capriles a 48-29 % point edge over Maduro, and a brutal 48% -21% lead over Diosdado.

Indeed, Henrique Capriles came to his current job as governor of Miranda state by unseating the chavista incumbent, Diosdado Cabello. A re-run of that race on a national scale would leave chavistas feeling badly exposed.

JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GettyImages

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