Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez returned to Cuba yesterday for more surgery after a recurrence of cancer led him to name a successor for the first time in a sign that ill-health 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 on Saturday from the presidential palace.
In the clearest indicator yet that Chavez’s health problems 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 an election had to be held.
“It is absolutely necessary, absolutely essential, that I undergo a new surgical intervention,” Chavez said, flanked by ministers.
“With God’s will, like on the 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, depriving them of one of their most acerbic voices.
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 — and may struggle to control his unwieldy coalition of military leaders and leftist activists.
Among them, though, Maduro — a 50-year-old, mustachioed former bus driver and union leader — is widely viewed as the most popular among ordinary Venezuelans thanks to his affable manner, humble background and close relationship with Chavez.
Speculation over 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 has cut back appearances since winning the Oct 7 election, saying campaigning and radiation therapy had left him exhausted.
He is due to have an operation in Cuba in the next few days.
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