Caracas, Dec. 9 (Reuters): Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez returns to Cuba today for more surgery after a recurrence of cancer led him to name a successor for the first time in a sign the disease may force an end to his 14-year rule.
Supporters prepared to gather in city squares across the South American country, shocked and saddened by the news from the 58-year-old socialist leader, who made the announcement in a late-night broadcast yesterday from the presidential palace.
In the clearest indicator yet that Chavez’s health could spell an end to his tumultuous years at the helm of the Opec nation, he said supporters should vote for Vice-President Nicolas Maduro if a new election had to be held.
“It is absolutely necessary, absolutely essential, that I undergo a new surgical intervention,” the President said in his speech, flanked by ashen-faced ministers.
“With God’s will, like on previous occasions, we will come out of this victorious. I have complete faith in that.”
His departure would trigger an election and mark the end of an era for the Latin American Left.
A clutch of nations in the region, from Cuba and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Ecuador, depend on Chavez’s oil-fuelled generosity to bolster their fragile economies.
An unruly transition from Chavez’s highly centralised rule could also raise the spectre of political instability in Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest crude oil reserves.
The President’s allies lack the charisma that has made him one of the world's most recognisable leaders — and most fierce critics of Washington.
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.
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 — where he has undergone three cancer operations since June 2011.
He returned to Venezuela on Friday after those tests, and is due to have the operation in Cuba in the next few 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 the permission of lawmakers to return for the operation.
“I decided to come, making an additional effort, in truth, because the pain is not insignificant,” Chavez said.