A follower of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez prays for
his health at Plaza Bolivar in Caracas. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is returning to Cuba for
more surgery after a recurrence of cancer led him to name a
successor for the first time in case the disease ends his
14-year dominance of the OPEC nation.
Throngs of shocked supporters gathered in squares across the
South American country to pray for and show solidarity with
the 58-year-old socialist leader, who was re-elected for a
new six-year term in October.
In his first public acknowledgement that his illness could
force him to step down, Chavez said his vice president and
foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, would take over if he is
incapacitated, and urged supporters to vote for him if an
election is held.
"With God's will, like on the previous occasions, we will
come out victorious," Chavez said late on Saturday (local
time) from the presidential palace alongside ashen-faced
His departure from office, either before or after the
scheduled January 10 start of his new term, would trigger an
election within 30 days. It would mark the end of an era for
the Latin American left, depriving it of one of its most
acerbic voices and Washington's loudest critic in the region.
A clutch of Latin American and Caribbean neighbours, from
Cuba and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Ecuador, depend on Chavez's
oil-financed generosity to bolster their fragile economies.
Cuba has been the biggest beneficiary with Chavez's
government shipping about 115,000 barrels of oil per day to
the communist-led island on preferential terms.
An unruly transition from Chavez's highly centralized rule
also could raise the specter of political instability in
Venezuela, which holds the world's largest crude oil
Allies lack Chavez's charisma and may struggle to control his
unwieldy coalition of military and leftist leaders.
FORMER BUS DRIVER NAMED SUCCESSOR
Among them, though, Maduro - a 50-year-old, mustachioed
former bus driver and union leader - is widely viewed as the
most popular among Venezuelans, thanks to his affable manner,
humble background and close relationship with Chavez.
While his humble roots appeal to the president's working
class supporters, Maduro's six years as Chavez's foreign
minister have boosted his profile with the leaders of China,
Russia and other world powers.
He has an easygoing style but also is a firm believer in
Chavez's socialist policies and has often led fierce
criticism of the United States.
Speculation about Chavez's health had grown during a
three-week absence from public view that culminated in his
latest trip for medical tests in Cuba. He has undergone three
cancer operations and had two tumors removed there since June
2011. He had twice claimed to be cured, only for the cancer
Chavez arrived in Venezuela on Friday after the latest tests,
and is due to have the operation in Cuba in the next few
days. Venezuela's National Assembly held a special session on
Sunday to approve his trip, a formality required whenever the
president travels overseas for more than five days.
Chavez said he had rejected the advice of his medical team to
have the surgery sooner, on Friday or this weekend, telling
them he needed to fly back to Venezuela to seek that
"I decided to come, making an additional effort, in truth,
because the pain is not insignificant," Chavez said in his
televised address, which was also shown live in Cuba.
His return to Cuba may mark the start of another lengthy
period of silence from government officials, combined with
furious rumors over what political changes might be in store
and what Chavez's actual condition is.
He has never revealed what type of cancer he has, saying only
that it was in the pelvic area. He said on Saturday that the
latest recurrence was in the same region.
Opposition leaders wished Chavez well but criticized him for
excessive secrecy and not using local healthcare.
"They said he was cured ... Venezuela has the right to know
the truth," one leader, Julio Borges, told the assembly.
NEW PRESIDENTIAL VOTE?
Chavez has been receiving treatment at Havana's Cimeq
hospital as a guest of his close friend and political mentor,
former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He is guaranteed tight
security and privacy on the communist-led Caribbean island.
The usually loquacious Venezuelan leader had sharply cut back
appearances since winning the Oct. 7 election, saying the
campaign and radiation therapy had left him exhausted.
Venezuela's constitution stipulates a new election if Chavez
leaves office, unless it is in the last two years of his
six-year term, when his vice president would take over.
Publicly naming long-time ally Maduro was a surprise.
"He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience
despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for
work," Chavez said.
Maduro may win less support from the military wing of the
Socialist Party, which controls many top government posts.
His naming sidelines Diosdado Cabello, who heads Congress and
is a former army comrade of Chavez. Perhaps fearing
in-fighting, Chavez urged unity again and again in his
"I never argue with Chavez's instructions, I obey them,"
Cabello told state TV afterward. "I am at the service of the
vice president, at the service of the fatherland."
If a new election were needed, the opposition could be in its
best position to win since Chavez took power in 1999. Many
voters have ignored the failings of Chavez's government
because of their intense emotional connection to him.
Henrique Capriles, a state governor, lost to Chavez in the
October election, winning 44 percent support and a record 6.5
million votes for the opposition. He has broad support in
opposition ranks and could run for president again.
Although past polls have shown Capriles is more popular than
any of Chavez's allies - including Maduro - the vice
president will benefit from his boss's personal blessing.
Venezuela's widely traded bonds are likely to soar when
markets open on Monday on bets that Chavez's renewed illness
will lead to a more market-friendly government.
Chavez's cancer saga has once again distracted attention from
major national issues like state elections in a week, a
possible devaluation of the bolivar currency, and a proposed
amnesty for jailed and exiled political foes.