Who could succeed Hugo Chavez as Venezuela's leader?

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (centre) arrives in Caracas from Cuba on 23 July 2011. Hugo Chavez is the central and dominant figure in Venezuelan politics

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made it clear that he intends to stand for re-election in presidential polls scheduled for 2012, despite having treatment for cancer.

Speaking on his return from chemotherapy in Cuba, he said doctors had found no malignant cells.

"I haven't for a single moment thought about retiring from the presidency," he said. "If there were reasons for me to do that, I would."

Mr Chavez, who is celebrating his 57th birthday on Thursday, first came to power in 1999.

With his charisma and skills as a public speaker, he centralised government, basking in the political limelight.

His style of government has become known as "chavismo" and his followers are dubbed "chavistas".

"The president's capacity for leadership is extraordinary," Reinaldo Iturriza, a member of Mr Chavez's United Socialist Party (PSUV), told the BBC. "Without doubt, finding another Chavez will be quite difficult."

Few other members of his cabinet and of the PSUV are recognisable faces either within Venezuela or on the international stage.

Nevertheless, if the president's illness were to leave him unable to continue as head of state or run for re-election, the PSUV would be faced with seeking a successor.

So who would be in the running?

The Brother

Credited with introducing his younger brother Hugo to the world of politics, Adan Chavez is the current governor of the family's home state of Barinas.

Adan Chavez (left) and Hugo Chavez(right) in file photo from 2008 Adan Chavez is a year older than his brother

A university professor, he has served as both the minister of education and Venezuela's ambassador to Cuba in recent years.

"He is considered a favourite of the Castro regime," says Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under US President George W Bush, and currently at the conservative US think tank, American Enterprise Institute.

His appointment would ensure the continuity of "chavismo" in name at least, and would mirror the handover of power in ally Cuba from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2006.

The Party Faithful

When Hugo Chavez left for a first round of chemotherapy treatment in Cuba earlier this month, he signed over some powers to his vice-president Elias Jaua.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) is welcomed by vice-president Elias Jaua Milano (R) on his arrival in Caracas after cancer surgery (4 July) Hugo Chavez has handed over some powers to vice-president Elias Jaua since his illness

Constitutionally, the vice-president would be expected to step in and take over the reins should Chavez be unable to serve out his current term of office, due to end next year.

But analysts are sceptical that Mr Jaua has what it takes to lead the party and the country in the long-term.

"He's just a sheer placeholder," says Mr Noriega. "He's trusted by the Cubans but he doesn't have any charisma whatsoever."

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has been at the president's side through his cancer diagnosis and treatment, shuttling back and forth between Havana and Caracas when Mr Chavez was recuperating from surgery to remove a tumour.

Other leading lights within the party include Rafael Ramirez, the energy minister, who holds the key to the source of most of the government's money, and Celia Flores, vice-president of the PSUV.

But none has a profile even close to that of the man they would have to replace.

The Dark Horse

Former army officer Diosdado Cabello helped Hugo Chavez to stage a failed coup in 1992 that presaged Mr Chavez's eventual election to the presidency.

During the early years of President Chavez's government, he served as interior minister before being elected as the governor of Miranda state in 2004 elections.

But he lost that position four years later to an opposition candidate and his political star seemed to be on the wane.

Nevertheless, Mr Caballo is a powerful member of the political elite and among those who has the president's ear.

"There are seven or eight people surrounding the president and accompanying him at the moment," says Nicmer Evans, a political analyst at Venezuela's Central University.

"Jaua, Ramirez, Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, Celia Flores are his inner circle right now."

The Army

Hugo Chavez salutes the crowd from the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela 4 July 2011 Hugo Chavez spent 17 years in the army

Hugo Chavez rose through the ranks of the army.

He often appears in military uniform, emphasising the control he has over the organisation.

Could the military play a key role in deciding who would take over from him?

"The army is one of the various players in any future selection of a candidate," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in California.

"The PSUV will have to balance various forces."

The Grassroots Socialist

President Chavez has always been quick to point out that he represents the grassroots members of the PSUV.

He has emphasised his poor upbringing in the hot and dusty plains of central Venezuela and his mixed ethnic background.

The party may find the charismatic figurehead they need to galvanise their traditional power base from among local leaders.

"There are a lot of social movement leaders from poorer neighbourhoods like the Barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas," says Tinker Salas.

"They don't have the national standing so they would have much more difficulty in trying to win support."

But perhaps the party would chose to groom one of them for a leading role.

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