By Lissy de Abreu
CARACAS, Venezuela – Leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez admitted a relapse of his cancer late Saturday and designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his heir apparent in case “something happened” to him.
Speaking on national television, an emotional Chávez said a return of cancer cells was detected during his most recent visit to Cuba for medical examination, and he will return to the communist-ruled island as early as Sunday for another round of surgery.
“During this thorough examination, they again detected some malignant cells in the same area as before,” Chávez said.
He did not offer details, but his cancer was first detected in the pelvic area. Neither the Venezuelan leader, nor his Cuban doctors have ever disclosed what kind of cancer that was.
He admitted he was suffering “somewhat strong” pain and was taking tranquilizers as part of preparation for his upcoming surgery.
Chávez acknowledged that his Cuban medical team had conveyed to him a sense of urgency about the operation, which he said was now “absolutely necessary.”
“The doctor recommended that I undergo surgery yesterday [Friday] at the latest, or this weekend,” he noted. “But I did not agree and came back home.”
Chavez returned from Havana on Friday after a 10-day stay in Cuba. He had not been seen in public for three weeks.
The Venezuelan leader also said that in the event “something happened” and he were incapacitated, Vice President Nicolas Maduro would step in and assume control of the government for the rest of the 2013-2019 term, as required by the constitution.
But in what appeared like a presentation of his final will, the president also indicated he would like Maduro to take over the reins of power in a post-Chávez period, urging Venezuelans to vote for him in the next presidential elections.
“You choose Maduro as president of the republic,” said Chávez told the nation. “I am asking you this from all my heart.”
Maduro, who has been serving as Venezuala’s foreign minister for the past six years, was appointed vice president in the wake of the October presidential elections. He has held both portfolios since.
Firebrand leader Chávez made his latest announcement despite frequent assurances on the campaign trail before his re-election in October that he had been cured of cancer.
Recurring bouts of the disease have dogged Chávez’s presidency for the past couple of years, requiring him to spend weeks at a time being treated in Cuba.
He had a cancerous tumor removed from near his pelvic area last year.
The Venezuelan leader, 58, has repeatedly claimed to have beaten the cancer that was diagnosed in 2011 and shrugged off his illness to see off a unified opposition and secure another six-year term on Oct. 7.
In Cuba last week, the official newspaper Granma explained that Chávez’s treatment consisted of oxygenation.
The American Cancer Society says there is no evidence that this oxygen treatment – in which a patient gets inside a pressurized chamber and breathes pure oxygen for an hour – works against cancer.
But the society says it can serve as treatment for ailments stemming from radiation treatment.
Chávez, who has been in power since 1999 and gained global prominence as an anti-U.S. firebrand, appeared weak and subdued during the presidential campaign, but still managed to win another term that extends to 2019.
Prior to Saturday’s surprise announcement, he had last been seen in public on Nov. 15, and two weeks later he went to Cuba for treatment.
Over the past year and a half, Chávez has missed practically every regional meeting he was to have attended, such as the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the Mercosur summit in Brazil and last month’s Ibero-American summit in Cadiz, Spain.