Venezuela's Hugo Chavez faces new cancer battle, surgery in Cuba
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was heading back to Cuba on Sunday for a third cancer surgery after naming his vice president as his choice to lead the country if the illness cuts short his presidency.
Chavez's announcement on Saturday night unleashed new uncertainty about the country's future, and his supporters poured into city plazas across the nation to pray for his recovery from what appears to be an aggressive type of cancer.
Some wiped tears, while others held photos of him and chanted in unison: "Ooh-Ah! Chavez isn't going away!"
Chavez acknowledged the seriousness of his health situation in a televised address, saying for the first time that if he suffers complications Vice President Nicolas Maduro should be elected as Venezuela's leader to continue his socialist movement.
Several outside medical experts said that based on Chavez's account of his condition and his treatment so far, they doubt the cancer can be cured.
Chavez said he hasn't given up.
"With the grace of God, we'll come out victorious," said Chavez, who held up a crucifix and kissed it during his Saturday night appearance.
The 58-year-old president is still scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10. He has been in office for nearly 14 years, since 1999.
"There are risks. Who can deny it?" Chavez said, seated at the presidential palace beside Maduro and other aides. "In any circumstance, we should guarantee the advance of the Bolivarian Revolution."
Chavez, who won re-election on Oct. 7, said he would undergo surgery in Havana in the coming days. Lawmakers on Sunday unanimously agreed to grant him permission to leave the country for the operation.
During a televised session, opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly agreed to Chavez's request and also said that Maduro should take on his duties during his temporary absence, as the constitution specifies. Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges criticized the incomplete information that has been released about Chavez's cancer, saying: "Venezuela has a right to know the truth."
Throughout his treatment, Chavez has kept secret various details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer. He has said he travels to Cuba for treatment because his cancer was diagnosed by doctors there.
Some of the pro-Chavez lawmakers cried and their voices cracked with emotion as they praised him and wished him a full recovery. "Onward, commander!" they chanted in unison.
"You are invincible," said Maria Leon, a pro-Chavez congresswoman, expressing confidence he would be back for his inauguration to start a new term.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said there are no plans at this time for Chavez to cede power, even temporarily, as president.
"He's not asking for permission to leave his duties," Cabello said. "The chief of this revolution is Hugo Chavez."
Under the Venezuelan constitution, as vice president Maduro would automatically fill in as president on a temporary basis should Chavez be unable to finish the current term concluding in early January.
But the constitution also says that if a president-elect dies before taking office, a new election should be held within 30 days. In the meantime, the president of the National Assembly is to be in charge of the government.
More than 1,000 of the president's supporters gathered Sunday in Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas to show solidarity, many wearing his movement's red T-shirts while a marching band played.
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