By Jordi Miro
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was recovering after a successful cancer operation at a Cuban hospital, his vice president said on Tuesday.
A visibly moved Nicolas Marduro, to whom Chávez delegated power before undergoing his fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana, said Chávez would shortly begin a “post-operative phase” that would last several days.
“This operation ended correctly and successfully,” Maduro said in an address to the nation. “In these coming hours, we will be very attentive.”
He said the operation took six hours and was “corrective surgery of a lesion” that occurred in the same place as before, without elaborating.
Earlier, Tareck El Aissami, a former interior minister and member of Venezuela’s ruling party, took to the airwaves shortly after doctors began operating to tell the Venezuelan people all was “going well.”
Chávez’s medical team expressed “optimism” as the cancer-stricken Venezuelan president went into surgery, while hundreds of faithful supporters gathered to pray that the longtime, omnipresent leader would live.
In the capital, Miriam Escobar stopped with her daughter at a mass being held in a downtown street to “pray for our commandante,” an act replicated in cities across the South American nation.
“We know that with faith you will succeed,” Escobar said tearfully.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who visited Chávez on Monday, expressed concern at the “very delicate operation.”
“He is going through one of the most difficult moments of his life, this dear friend, colleague and Latin American leader, Commandante Chávez,” Correa said in the border town of Tulcan, Ecuador.
“Truly, he is a historic president and let’s hope he comes through this health problem totally re-established,” said Correa, who was meeting with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.
Chávez, 58, flew to Havana for surgery on Monday after revealing to his stunned countrymen over the weekend that his cancer had returned just two months after his triumphant re-election to a six-year term.
The president was first diagnosed with the disease in June 2011. He had assured Venezuelans that he was cancer-free after three bouts of surgery and debilitating rounds of chemo and radiation therapy.
Significant aspects of his condition – including the type, location and severity of his cancer – have been kept secret over the past 18 months, fueling rumors and uncertainty in Venezuela.
Chávez made clear before his departure to Havana that he was facing a serious setback, publicly naming Maduro as his preferred successor for the first time.
Without formally handing over the presidency, Chávez said he was delegating the country’s “high political command” to Maduro while he was gone and said the vice president would succeed him if he became incapacitated.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is incapacitated either before being sworn into office or in the first four years of his term.
Correa, a firebrand leftist economist who could succeed Chávez as leader of the Latin American left, on Monday flew to the Venezuelan’s side in Havana where he found him in “great spirits.”
“He gives us all strength,” Correa said on Twitter.
Correa said he had also visited Cuban President Raúl Castro and his predecessor, Fidel Castro, during his day-long stay in the Cuban capital.
With Cuba’s backing, Chávez has taken the lead in forming a bloc of leftist Latin American governments that vehemently opposes the United States and has friendly relations with U.S. adversaries like Iran.
Members of the group include Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Though Cuban authorities did not announce it, Chávez is believed to be receiving treatment at the same Havana hospital he was at earlier, known as CIMEQ.
The hospital, where Fidel Castro has been cared for, is seen as the communist country’s best facility for complicated medical conditions.