- (Reuters/Jorge Silva)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has returned to Cuba for more cancer surgery after malignant cells were found in his body. He has also urged the country to consider his possible replacement should he be unable to continue serving.
"If something happens that sidelines me, which under the constitution requires a new presidential election, you should elect Nicolas Maduro as president," Chavez told the nation in a TV address on Saturday, sitting next to the Vice President. "I ask that of you from my heart."
The socialist leader was re-elected as Venezuela's president in October, extending his time in office to 14 years.
"Today is a memorable day. I thank God and ask Him life and health to keep serving the Venezuelan people," Chavez, 58, said after his big victory on Oct. 7, when he beat rival Henrique Capriles by more than 9 percentage points.
Chavez seemed to have turned the tide in his long-term battle against cancer, the details of which have mostly been kept from the public, other than his travels to Cuba where he has undergone treatment and surgery a number of times. In Saturday's address, however, the Venezuelan leader clarified that "some malignant cells" had been detected in his pelvic region, for which he would fly out to Havana, Cuba's capital, on Sunday, The Washington Post reported.
Chavez departed Cuba at 1. a.m. on Monday local time, state TV reported, while video of the departure was shown hours later.
"I hope to return soon," Chavez told military commanders before he left, The Associated Press reported. Before leaving, he promoted the defense minister, Diego Molero, to the rank of admiral in chief.
"This is how life goes," the socialist leader concluded in his TV statement. "God willing, I hope to be able to give you good news in the coming days."
Chavez has held firm to his Roman Catholic faith and praised God every step of the way in his battle against cancer, and has said the fight has even made him "more of a Christian."
"I'm sure our Christ will do it again, continuing making the miracle," the leader told supporters in May before undergoing his cancer treatment.
"Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people," Chavez proclaimed in April during an emotional pre-Easter Mass.
Some analysts have surmised, however, that Chavez's open plea to the people to think about his replacement might be a sign that he fears he might be forced to resign as president of Venezuela.
"He said goodbye to power," suggested Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan government official. "It's a statement full of resignation and appeals to God. There is no plan. The only talk of the future is that there will be elections and he asks for people to vote for Maduro."
The Washington Post noted that should Chavez die or resign, a new election would have to be staged within 30 days. Maduro would automatically become the United Socialist Party's candidate. While Chavez currently remains in Cuba, Maduro will perform the presidential duties.