May 24, 2013
Chávez arrives in Cuba for surgery, vows 'I'll be back'
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez flew to Cuba early today for cancer surgery, vowing to return quickly despite admitting the disease could curb his 14-year rule of the South American nation.
"I leave full of hope. We are warriors, full of light and faith in Christ to keep battling and conquering," Chavez said shortly before boarding the flight to Havana.
"I hope to be back soon," said Chávez, who pumped a fist in the air as he walked up the steps to the plane.
The 58-year-old socialist leader is facing his fourth operation since mid-2011 for a third recurrence of an undisclosed form of cancer in the pelvic area.
Chávez stunned Venezuelans over the weekend with his announcement that more malignant cells had been found, despite twice declaring himself completely cured in the past.
He won a presidential election in October and is due to start a new six-year term on January 10. Chávez's departure from office, either before or after that date, would trigger a vote within 30 days.
It would also mark the end of an era given his flamboyant leadership of Latin America's hard left and self-appointed role as Washington's main provocateur in the region.
In a speech to the nation on Saturday night, Chávez named Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro to take over should he become incapacitated. He also urged supporters to vote for Maduro in the event of an election.
"I trust completely in my soldiers," Chávez said, dressed in a blue-and-white track suit, during the swearing-in of a new defense minister before his departure. "The republic and the revolution are in good hands."
The naming of Maduro and swearing-in of a new defense minister appeared to be Chavez's way of trying to leave the house in good order.
Ministers were once again trying to keep Venezuelans calm despite frenzied speculation.
"We are still working the same, following the instructions of the president who remains the president of the republic," Finance Minister Jorge Giordani told Reuters.
But the health saga has once again eclipsed major national issues such as state elections on Sunday, a widely respected devaluation of the bolivar currency, and a proposed amnesty for Chávez's jailed and exiled political foes.