Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez flies to Cuba on Sunday for surgery to remove a recurring cancerous tumor that for the first time led him to name a successor should his condition force him from the office he has held for 14 years.
In a dour, late-night televised address on Saturday, Chavez said that his vice president and close confidant, Nicolas Maduro, would be his replacement. And Chavez, 58, told his supporters that they should vote for Maduro should a new election be called, as the constitution mandates if the president has to unexpectedly leave office.
"If something happens that sidelines me, Nicolas Maduro should not just conclude the term, as the constitution mandates," Chavez said. "In that scenario, which under the constitution requires a new presidential election, you should elect Nicolas Maduro as president."
With Maduro flanking him as he spoke before a large wooden table, Chavez then said: "I ask that of you from my heart."
After an 18-month battle with cancer, Chavez's announcement was the clearest sign yet that his poor health could abruptly end his self-described Socialist Revolution.
The president said that "some malignant cells" had been detected in the same pelvic region afflicted by cancer and that it has become "absolutely necessary" to undergo another surgery in the next few days in Havana. It would be Chavez's fourth operation since he first astonished his countrymen in June 2011 by telling them that he had gone under the knife twice to remove a cancerous growth.
Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan government official and now an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, called the announcement "basically a farewell speech."
"He said goodbye to power," said Naim, noting the significance of naming Maduro as a chosen successor after months of roiling speculation in Venezuela over who had Chavez's support. "It's a statement full of resignation and appeals to God. There is no plan. The only talk of the future is that there will be elections and he asks for people to vote for Maduro."
If Chavez is forced to leave office, it would mark the end of a tumultuous rule in which the leftist former army officer harnessed Venezuela's considerable oil wealth to shower poor supporters with social programs while engineering a sharp diplomatic shift away from the country's historic ally, the United States.
Chavez's government forged alliances with some of Washington's most intransigent adversaries, including Cuba, Iran and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. He also has used his lock on practically all levers of power, from the courts to the congress, to push forward the nationalizations of hundreds of private companies and the seizure of wide swaths of farmland.
For Venezuela's opposition, the possible scenarios that Chavez discussed in Saturday's address amount to the first time the president has publicly acknowledged the severity of his illness. Indeed, the cancer has been a state secret, and on two occasions since June of last year Chavez has pronounced himself cured, without providing details.
"It was time to tell the truth to the country," Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman, said in a phone interview. "Venezuela has been living with a lot of uncertainty. In a democratic country where the constitution is obeyed, the president must talk about his health when it is compromised. Finally yesterday he cleared up the situation."
Should Chavez die or have to resign, the constitution calls for Venezuela to stage presidential elections within 30 days. Maduro, a 50-year-old former union organizer and bus driver who has risen through the ranks of Chavez's movement, would become the candidate of the president's United Socialist Party.
The constitution also requires that the vice president fill in for the president should he be temporarily absent. Chavez has spent weeks on end in Cuba over the last 18 months, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But he has remained in charge of the government, signing decrees and bills from Havana.
Machado said that the opposition will call for a strict interpretation of the constitution now that Chavez himself has opened the possibility of being forced to step aside.
"Article 233 of the constitution is clear about the only mechanism, an election within 30 days," she said. "He can't name a successor. It's the Venezuelan people who decide."
A new election would mean a contest between Maduro and the opposition's leader, Henrique Capriles.
Capriles lost to Chavez in the presidential election held Oct. 7, with the president winning 55 percent of the vote to the challenger's 44 percent. Polls, though, have shown that Capriles is more popular in Venezuela than all of Chavez's closest associates, including Maduro.
Chavez's announcement comes after weeks of uncertainty because of the president's absence from the television airwaves. It immediately raised the question of whether the president will even be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10.
"This is how life goes," Chavez said in his televised address. "God willing, I hope to be able to give you good news in the coming days."