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.
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.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.