President Hugo Chávez returned to Cuba Monday for cancer surgery after naming Vice President Nicolas Maduro his political successor and warning his leadership team to refrain from intrigues.
Chávez was shown on Venezuelan television pumping his fist and shouting “Forward to life always” in an emotional predawn farewell before boarding a plane to Cuba surrounded by his closes aides.
Cuban President Raúl Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez met Chávez, 58, at the Havana International Airport on his arrival early Monday, the Cuban state news agency reported.
Chávez’s health is of paramount importance to Havana’s communist leadership, which relies on Venezuela – a country that sits atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves – for cheap oil, economic aid and international support.
The leftist leader, who was re-elected in October after proclaiming himself to be cancer-free, faces his fourth round of surgery in Cuba since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011.
Forced out of the political fray for the time being, due to his medical condition, Chávez urged Venezuelans to support Maduro and warned against the perils of a struggle over his succession.
“I only ask you once again to strengthen your unity … and not fall prey to intrigue,” said Chávez at the swearing-in Sunday of a new defense minister, Diego Molero Bellavia.
At the event, broadcast Monday on state television, Chávez expressed confidence in the military’s loyalty, saying “it was in good hands.”
But he warned: “The enemy is lurking abroad and within, and they will not fail to take advantage of any possible circumstance to pounce as hyenas on the motherland … and deliver it to imperialism,” Chávez said, speaking to military leaders.
In power since 1999, Chávez was briefly deposed in a 2002 coup, only to be restored to power by loyal soldiers 47 hours later. Chávez launched a failed coup himself in 1992 against then-president Carlos Andres Pérez.
Chávez’s pre-dawn departure was announced via Twitter by Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas.
Chávez has entrusted his care almost exclusively to Cuban doctors over Venezuelans, possibly to better control information about his condition. The type and severity of Chávez’s cancer has never been disclosed.
Shortly after returning from 10 days of treatment in Cuba, he stunned the country late Saturday by revealing that his cancer had returned and he needed to undergo another round of surgery.
Treatment is “absolutely necessary,” he said on state television, admitting he may have to give up the presidency and that Maduro was his chosen successor.
In an indication of the severity of the situation, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa – a close ally – announced via Twitter Monday that he was traveling to Havana to be with Chávez.
A firebrand who rose to international prominence as an acerbic critic of the United States, the once omnipresent Chávez has been strikingly absent from view even as he campaigned for re-election.
He has missed practically every regional meeting he was to have attended over the past year and a half, including the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the Mercosur summit in Brazil and last month’s Ibero-American summit.
Maduro’s designation as heir in the event that “something happens” to him underlined both the seriousness of Chávez’s condition, and the political uncertainty arising from his illness.
Speaking Saturday, Chávez said his Cuban doctors recommended “that I undergo surgery yesterday [Friday] at the latest, or this weekend,” he noted. “But I did not agree and came back home.”
He urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro in the next presidential poll should he become incapacitated.
“Choose Maduro as president of the republic,” Chávez said. “I am asking you this from all my heart.”
The Venezuelan constitution calls for new elections to be held within 30 days if the president is permanently incapacitated either before his inauguration – scheduled for Jan. 10 – or in the first four years of his six-year term.
Maduro, Venezuela’s foreign minister for the past six years, was appointed vice president following Chávez’s re-election in October. He has since held both portfolios.
The 50-year-old former bus driver who began his political career in the labor movement belongs to the more moderate wing of the Chávez entourage.
Paving the way for his departure, the National Assembly on Sunday granted Chávez permission to travel to Cuba and to leave the country for an indefinite amount of time.