Uncertainty rules in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez battles a cancer some believe has turned fatal.
As Chavez shuttles between Venezuela and Cuba, where he is receiving treatment for a type of cancer he has declined to identify, speculation grows whether he'll be in shape to campaign for the Oct. 7 presidential election. Or if he will even be alive by then.
With no clear successor in line because Chavez has not designated one, analysts see political and military leaders and others with an eye on power quietly maneuvering to take over, improve their lot or simply stay out of prison.
"People are obviously positioning themselves," said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue policy institute. "Chavez is very well-placed to announce his successor. But he really doesn't want to name his successor because it would be an indication that not only is he a lame duck, but he's a goner."
"This is like a kaleidoscope," said Roger Noriega, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-2003.
It's not a well-defined picture, but the outlines are beginning to form.
Two Chavez allies take top posts
The military -- the power base from which Chavez came into prominence 20 years ago -- saw two strong allies named to top government posts four months ago. Whether the military forced those moves on Chavez or he made the appointments of his own volition as a way to further his socialist political movement is unclear and a point of debate among analysts.
The fact remains, though, that Diosdado Cabello, a longtime Chavez cohort who was part of a failed coup attempt by then-army colonel Chavez in February 1992, amassed tremendous power in January when Chavez named him president of the National Assembly.
Chavez had already appointed Cabello a month earlier to the No. 2 spot in another significant power base -- the president's political organization, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, commonly known as PSUV, its Spanish acronym.
The second major appointment also occurred in January, when Chavez named Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as minister of defense, the top military post in the nation. Rangel Silva's appointment drew particular attention because the U.S. Treasury Department designated him as a drug kingpin in 2008. U.S. officials say Rangel Silva and other Venezuelan officials helped the guerrilla organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ship cocaine through Venezuela.
Although Chavez and Rangel Silva deny the accusations, the military leader is among a group of Venezuelan commanders often referred to as "the narcogenerals." Other military leaders identified as narcogenerals by the Treasury Department include Army Gen. Cliver Alcala, who is commander of Venezuela's Fourth Armored Division, and Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal, whom Chavez removed as intelligence chief in December.
In addition, former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte, who defected to the United States in April and is reported to be collaborating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, named in a recent TV interview two other former generals he said are drug kingpins. He named Nestor Reverol, director of the National Antidrug Office, and Raul Isais Baduel, a former minister of defense who publicly broke with Chavez in 2007 and is now in prison on corruption charges.
The Miami Herald also reported, citing an unnamed source, that Aponte Aponte has identified Cabello as another top official working with drug traffickers. U.S. intelligence cables made public by Wikileaks also linked Cabello to drug trafficking.
None of these officials have been charged with any crimes and all have repeatedly denied the allegations.
Noriega and other observers have said the appointments of Cabello and Rangel Silva have turned Venezuela into a narcostate.
"Cabello and Rangel Silva are a fact of life," Noriega said. "They have been since January. The military and the narcogenerals got their way in who was going to lead this thing."
Others are not so sure, saying Chavez just wanted to consolidate power in the national assembly and the military before the election.
"He didn't want to have to look back as he moves forward," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuela specialist and professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
"I think Chavez is still fully in control," Tinker Salas said. "I don't think there's a power struggle behind the scenes."
Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political consultant and professor at Venezuela's Universidad Catolica Andres Bello y Simon Bolivar, basically agrees.
"It's an issue that depends greatly on Chavez," Carrasquero said. "Chavez will be the first to have a word."
Maneuvering comes as Chavez fights for life
The possible political maneuvering comes as Chavez fights for his life against a cancer he disclosed last year only after persistent published reports said the president was ill with the disease. Little is known about his illness and treatment because Chavez has refused to provide any details. Press accounts, though, by a handful of correspondents who say they have access to the medical records or to people connected with the case, paint a grim prognosis.
Among those reporting on Chavez's condition are Venezuelan columnist Nelson Bocaranda and Venezuelan doctor Jose Rafael Marquina, who practices in Florida and has no direct connection with the case but says he has colleagues who know what is happening. Reporters from the Spanish ABC newspaper and the Brazilian O Globo daily publication also have filed reports on Chavez's condition.