CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez face a potentially more difficult political playing field now that their nemesis has announced he is being treated for cancer.
Venezuela's loosely knit coalition of opposition factions insists it is sticking with plans to stand behind a single candidate in next year's presidential election, yet the only glue that has held them together for years has been animosity toward Chavez.
If cancer were to force Chavez from the race, long-standing divisions could widen, hurting the opposition's chances for victory.
"The situation poses a severe test for the opposition. They may sense an opportunity but there are risks of fracturing," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "Some figures might convince themselves that remaining united is not necessary, and they can afford to stake out different positions."
"Any infighting could be very debilitating," he added.
Most opposition politicians reject the slightest suggestion that the anti-Chavez movement could split if the president were to stop playing an active role in politics. Several months before Chavez became ill, the diverse collection of opposition parties has said it will hold a presidential primary in February to select a single presidential candidate.
But under these new circumstances, some of the president's rivals may be "thinking that the barrier to participating in the elections is lowered," said Carlos Blanco, professor of Latin American affairs at Boston University and former minister for state reform in Venezuela from 1989 to 1992.
"That can create a situation in which more candidates would like to run for the primaries," thereby splintering the opposition, Blanco said.
Some of Chavez's adversaries acknowledge that personal ambitions might get in the way.
"Anything is possible within the opposition," Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, one of several presidential hopefuls, said in a telephone interview. "We must all relinquish any type of personal ambition, of party interests and follow the path that has been followed so far: the path toward the primary," he said.
For the moment, the opposition is standing firmly united on one thing, at least: its criticism of how Chavez's government has handled his illness. They claim officials have been far too secretive and that Vice President Elias Jaua should officially take over the president's duties until he returns from Cuba, where he is recovering after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his pelvis.
But Jaua said that wouldn't happen; that the president is perfectly capable of running the country from Cuba.
Chavez is in the process of "getting better to keep on leading us," the vice president said as he presided over a military ceremony Saturday in Caracas.
Chavez himself said in an interview with Cuban state television Friday night that he planned to meet with some of his Cabinet ministers Saturday in Cuba. He also expressed optimism that he will recover.