CARACAS (Reuters) - From would-be assassins to capitalist hoarders, Venezuela's government is jumping on any perceived threats from old enemies in what opponents see as a tactic to shore up support during socialist President Hugo Chavez's absence after cancer surgery.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, once widely viewed as an easy-going, more moderate figure, has been arguably as hard line and explosive as the boss while running the government since Chavez went to Cuba for surgery in December.
"Don't lower your guard against permanent conspirations by imperialism and the Venezuelan right wing!" the 50-year-old Maduro, who is Chavez's anointed dauphin, thundered to a crowd a few days ago in the latest of regular tirades against opponents.
With the usually garrulous and airwave-hogging Chavez out of public view since his December 11 operation, Maduro has done his best to fill the rhetorical void - never deviating from the old lines, although clearly lacking the president's charisma.
Just as Chavez did near-daily during his turbulent 14-year rule, Maduro and other government heavyweights have been firing salvoes at pro-opposition media, threatening businessmen with punishment for speculation and denouncing plots.
A Spanish newspaper's publication of a false photo of Chavez in hospital brought furious denunciations of the "necrophiliac right-wing" media's "evil-hearted" conspiring against Venezuela.
Blaming businessmen for causing price rises and shortages of some essential goods by hoarding, the government has sent inspectors into shops, warehouses and factories across Venezuela to root out evidence.
"It takes your breath away, the hate they have for the Venezuelan people," Maduro, who has met with business leaders to give them a face-to-face warning, said in one speech.
During the national sweep, authorities recently raided one warehouse to seize 9,000 tonnes of sugar intended to make Pepsi-Cola.
In the government's most dramatic accusation since Chavez's surgery, both Maduro and National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello alleged unidentified groups had entered Venezuela to kill them. No evidence has yet been given, prompting mockery from foes.
"It's a smokescreen so people talk of assassination plots rather than the crisis of governance in the country," opposition legislator Abelardo Diaz said.
Critics say Maduro's position as de facto leader is illegitimate, given that Chavez missed the swearing-in of his new government earlier this month. They want Chavez declared formally absent, which would lead to the naming of a caretaker president and new election within 30 days.
Maduro and other senior officials insist that Chavez, whose surgery was his fourth for a cancer first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011, is on track to recover and will return soon.
They say political opponents who failed to topple Chavez earlier in his rule with street marches, a coup attempt and an oil strike are now delighting in his health woes and making illegal plans to grab power.
Maduro is a former bus driver and union activist who rose quickly through the ranks to become one of Chavez's most trusted allies and his foreign minister for six years.
He is bent on keeping unity in the ruling Socialist Party and on the surface at least he has achieved that - no mean feat given supposed rivalries among leaders of a movement that combines ideologues, ex-guerrillas, businessmen and career soldiers and that has been held together mainly by Chavez's personality.
Maduro and Cabello's attacks on foes keep party stalwarts focused on external threats and the need for unity. It is a tactic successfully used by Chavez, who has for years played on class prejudice and emphasized his own poor background to boost his support from the masses.
"Look at the language they use, the pejorative words of an oligarchy that has never understood who we are," Maduro said in one speech, reminding red-clad "Chavista" supporters how opponents laugh at his humble roots.
"They say we must get rid of the 'little lieutenant' (Cabello) and the 'bus-driver,'" said the vice president, whom some middle-class opponents sneer at for his former job and lack of a university education.
One of Chavez's traditional whipping boys is the virulently anti-government Globovision TV network and it has again been hit with legal proceedings, this time for causing "anxiety" in its coverage of the president's health.
Although its news coverage is often breathless and strident - and private media have a blemished record in their partisan anti-Chavez coverage as well as suffering tough measures against them - Globovision insists the accusations are ridiculous.
"Every time the government is in trouble, or in a complicated situation, they try and censure us to distract public attention," said Globovision Vice President Carlos Zuloaga.
Certainly, Chavez's sickness has eclipsed public debate over crime, inflation and problems in public services, and there is anxiety on the streets at the secrecy over his precise state.
"No one's speaking clearly about this," said 27-year-old Caracas resident Lizbeth Sandoval. "They tell us about plans to kill Maduro and so on but they don't tell us how Chavez is. They don't even give us medical reports."
Maduro, balancing the continued militancy of the government he leads at least temporarily, did speak late last year with a senior U.S. official in a possible sign he would consider a rapprochement with the old enemy to the north.
Yet most see him as a chip off the old block.
"Replacing a leader who controlled power so tightly has two possible variations - negotiation or radicalization," said local political analyst Luis Vicente Leon. "If we assume Maduro is weaker than Chavez, there's a high risk his path is a radical one."
Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kieran Murray and Bill Trott