Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez typically gives hours of televised speeches a week, but for two weeks he has disappeared from public view, undergoing an emergency operation in Cuba and prompting swirling speculation in the country's political class about who might succeed him should he die.
The government has treated the president's departure since June 10 as a state secret, providing scant details about his condition. What Chavez's closest associates have publicly said has only fueled speculation about the health of the man who has so dominated politics in his 12 years in power that no successor has ever emerged, even from within his populist Bolivarian movement.
"The world is waiting and accompanying President Chavez in this journey, which is a battle to definitively re-establish his health," Nicolas Maduro, the foreign minister, said in a statement released Friday by the state's Bolivarian News Agency.
On Sunday, one of Chavez's brothers, Adan Chavez, said backers of the president should not rule out armed struggle in the future, though they prefer to maintain power at the ballot box.
The departure of Hugo Chavez for so long, particularly from the airwaves that he commandeers frequently in Venezuela, has prompted a heated debate over who would, or should, be in charge of the country.
"He has been centralizing power during 12 years now, putting himself in the foreground as the only and indispensable leader," Demetrio Boersner, a historian and former Venezuelan diplomat, said by phone from Caracas. "So right now, there is no personality within the governing party that seems like the logical substitute in case it would be necessary to replace him."
The Venezuelan Constitution says the vice president would take the president's place during a "temporary" absence. But Vice President Elias Jaua rejected the demands of some government foes that he be sworn in on an interim basis.
The government's official account is that Chavez began suffering from abdominal pain during a meeting with Fidel Castro in Havana and was rushed to surgery.
Chavez, who turns 57 next month, soon phoned Venezuela's main state television station to say he was recovering and there was no "malignant" illness. Officially, the government said that Chavez underwent surgery for a "pelvic abscess," which is pus in the abdomen brought on by infection or other causes. Government officials said the president continued to sign bills and govern from Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally.
The president's political allies have been irritated by the speculation about Chavez's illness in Venezuela's mainstream news media and by the opposition, characterizing it as an effort to sow discord.
But the president's adversaries question both the secrecy surrounding his prolonged absence and the legality of Chavez governing from Cuba.
Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas and one of Chavez's most determined political foes, said that in this "hour of confusion" Venezuelans are asking themselves who is in charge.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.