CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's cancer relapse and his sudden announcement that he will undergo a fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba have thrown the country's future into question, and his designated political heir has begun trying to fill the void.
Underlining the gravity of the situation, Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke into tears on Monday at a political rally hours after Chavez flew to Havana.
"Chavez has a nation, he has all of us, and he'll have all of us forever in this battle," said Maduro, who wiped away tears while speaking to supporters. "Even beyond this life, we're going to be loyal to Hugo Chavez."
Maduro called for the president's supporters to rally behind his candidates in upcoming gubernatorial elections on Sunday, and he also inaugurated a new cable car system in a poor neighborhood. Maduro, who spoke passionately and wore the red of Chavez's socialist movement, seems set to take on a larger role as the president's chosen successor.
Chavez said for the first time on Saturday that if he suffers complications, Maduro should take over for him and should be elected president to continue his socialist movement.
Maduro may inherit political power, "but he definitely can't inherit the charisma" of Chavez, said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster who heads the Venezuelan firm Datanalisis. He said that during his nearly 14 years in office Chavez has been the glue that has held together diverse groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions.
Leon said it's unclear if Maduro has what it takes to hold the movement together if Chavez dies. "Internal divisions could make the revolution unstable in the future," Leon said.
Before leaving for Havana early Monday, Chavez met with military commanders at the presidential palace and promoted his defense minister, Diego Molero, to the rank of admiral in chief.
Chavez showed Molero and other military commanders a golden sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Holding the sword, Chavez told the officers that he fully trusts them. He also warned of potential conspiracies by enemies, both foreign and domestic.
"I'm totally sure that our homeland is safe," Chavez told them. He urged them "not to give in to intrigue."
Chavez announced that his cancer had reappeared and named Maduro as his chosen successor during a quick weekend visit to Caracas after spending 10 days in Cuba for treatment.
He said he wanted to return to deliver his message to the nation, and his appearance after a prolonged absence allowed him to send a clear directive to his movement that it should follow Maduro if cancer cuts short his presidency.
Many in Venezuela have interpreted his message as indicating that he now faces long odds.
Video of his departure, played hours later on state television, showed Chavez raising a fist as he climbed the stairs alone. From top of the stairs, he waved and shouted "Long live our homeland!"
Also visible in the doorway of the plane were his eldest daughter, Rosa, and a grandson.
The 58-year-old president won re-election in October and is due to be sworn in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10. If Chavez were to die, the constitution says that new elections should be called and held within 30 days.
Chavez said on Saturday that if such new elections are held, Maduro should be elected president in his place.
Chavez plans to undergo his third operation to remove cancerous tissue in about a year and a half. An initial surgery for a pelvic abscess in June 2011 helped reveal he had cancer. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Chavez said in July that tests showed he was cancer-free. But he had recently reduced his public appearances and on Nov. 27 returned to Cuba saying he would undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment.
Such treatment is regularly used to help heal tissues damaged by radiation treatment.
He said that while in Cuba tests found a return of "some malignant cells" in the same area where tumors were previously removed. Chavez said he will undergo surgery in the coming days, but it's not clear how soon.
As Chavez arrived in Havana in the early morning darkness, he received a typical welcome from Cuban President Raul Castro, who hugged him and smiled for the cameras.
But he also received a last-minute visit from Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who flew to Cuba on Monday.
"He has a very grave health problem," Correa told reporters at Havana's international airport. "We came to give him a hug in the name of the Ecuadorean people. . . . He is not alone."
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