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Hugo Chavez hopes “I’ll be back”!

– Venezuela’s ailing President Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba on Monday for cancer surgery, vowing to return quickly despite his unprecedented admission the disease could end his 14-year rule of the South American OPEC nation.

“I leave full of hope. We are warriors, full of light and faith,” the ever-upbeat Chavez said before boarding the flight to Havana. “I hope to be back soon.”

Chavez pumped a fist in the air as he set off for the latest chapter of a tumultuous rule that has seen a brief coup against him, waves of industry nationalizations, a crippling oil strike and heightened acrimony with the United States.

The 58-year-old socialist leader is facing his fourth operation since mid-2011 for a third bout of an undisclosed form of cancer in the pelvic area. The news sparked a rally in Venezuela bonds on Monday, given many investors’ preference for more a business-friendly government in Caracas.

Chavez stunned Venezuelans over the weekend with his announcement that more malignant cells had been found, despite twice declaring himself completely cured in the past.

He won re-election in October and is due to start a new six-year term on January 10. Chavez’s departure from office, either before or after that date, would trigger a vote within 30 days.

It would also mark the end of an era given his flamboyant leadership of Latin America’s hard left and self-appointed role as Washington’s main provocateur in the region.

Chavez has named Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his preferred successor, urging supporters to vote for Maduro in the event of an election.

“I trust completely in my soldiers,” Chavez said, dressed in a blue-and-white track suit, during the swearing-in of a new defense minister before his departure.

“The republic and the revolution are in good hands.”

The naming of Maduro and swearing-in of a new defense minister appeared to be Chavez’s way of trying to leave the house in good order. Ministers were once again trying to keep Venezuelans calm despite frenzied speculation.


Opposition leaders say Venezuela is entering potentially dangerous waters and a temporary president should be named during Chavez’s absence, as allowed by the constitution.

According to the constitution, Congress head Diosdado Cabello – widely considered a rival of Maduro’s despite their public protestations to the contrary – would step in temporarily should Chavez be incapacitated before the January 10 date.

Maduro would assume the job should Chavez be incapacitated after that date. Chavez pointedly called for unity and “no intrigue” before leaving.

While sympathizing with Chavez and wishing him good health, the opposition has criticized the secrecy around medical details and his snubbing of local doctors in favor of those in Cuba.

“Hiding information for partial gain, without taking into account the national interest, is not a democratic procedure, it does not give good results,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the leader of Venezuela’s Democratic Unity coalition.

Chavez left Venezuela in the early hours of Monday and was met in Cuba by President Raul Castro. “Onward to victory forever, onward to life forever! Long live the fatherland!” an emotional Chavez boomed to supporters on the runway as he walked up to the plane…

Supporters have been holding vigils for Chavez round the nation, and even though he was absent on Monday, his image was everywhere on state media and in public squares.

Messages of support also have poured in from abroad, the latest on Monday from a former foe-turned-friend, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos. “Our solidarity with President Chavez in these difficult moments,” he tweeted…(Cawthorne)

…Chavez called for voters to take things a step further.

“My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon — irrevocable, absolute, total — is … that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president,” Chavez said, waving a copy of the Venezuelan Constitution as he spoke. “I ask this of you from my heart. He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I cannot.”

It was the first time Chavez had spoken publicly about the possibility of a successor — a shocking subject from a man who looms larger than life in Venezuela and in Latin American politics.

“This is huge. He could have said something indirectly. He could have said something like, ‘We’ll have to see. Let’s talk about it when the time comes,'” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “He switched from being very evasive to very articulate. That must have been the result of a major change in health for the worse.”

Credit: QuestCinq and agencies

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