CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba on Monday for cancer surgery, with a vow to return quickly despite conceding for the first time that the disease could end his 14-year rule of the South American OPEC nation.
"I leave full of hope. We are warriors, full of light and faith," the ever-upbeat Chavez said before boarding the flight to Havana. "I hope to be back soon."
Chavez, 58, pumped a fist in the air as he set off for the latest chapter of a tumultuous rule that has included a brief coup, persistent acrimony with the United States and frequent nationalizations, as well as wildly popular anti-poverty programs.
The socialist president first suffered an undisclosed form of cancer in the pelvic region in mid-2011. He had appeared to improve and easily won re-election in October but now faces a fourth round of surgery for a second cancer recurrence in the same area.
The news sparked a rally in Venezuela bonds on Monday, given many investors' preference for more a business-friendly government in Caracas.
Chavez stunned Venezuelans over the weekend with his nationally televised announcement that more malignant cells had been found, despite twice having declared himself cured.
END OF AN ERA?
Chavez's re-election in October was helped by heavy government spending on social programs and his intense emotional connection to followers who view him as a larger-than-life figure.
He is due to start a new six-year term on January 10.
His departure would 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.
Chavez has named Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro as his preferred successor, urging supporters to vote for Maduro in the event of an election. The constitution stipulates a vote within 30 days should he be incapacitated.
In his first appearance following his anointment, Maduro wept as he vowed the country would remain faithful to Chavez and carry on his self-styled revolution.
"We are going to accompany President Chavez in prayer and in action," Maduro said at a campaign rally for state governors. "We've been with (him) in the good times and bad times."
Allies including former Vice President Elias Jaua and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez came forward with good wishes for the president. Ramirez read a statement from oil workers vowing unbending loyalty to Chavez and promising to support Maduro.
State media promoted a Twitter campaign for the president by splashing hash tags including #ElmundoestaconChavez (the world is with Chavez). By midday, it was one of the micro blogging site's top global trending topics.
The health saga has once again eclipsed major national issues such as state elections on Sunday, a widely expected devaluation of the bolivar currency and a proposed amnesty for Chavez's jailed and exiled political foes.
If a new election were needed, the opposition could be in its best position to win since Chavez took power in 1999. Many voters have overlooked the government's failings because of their deep emotional connection with the president.
But the opposition's prospects may hinge on the result of the vote for Miranda state governor on Sunday. A loss there for Governor Henrique Capriles could fracture the coalition that backed him as a unity presidential candidate and spark a return to an era of infighting that benefited Chavez and his allies.
Capriles, 40, lost to Chavez in October but got 44 percent of the vote - a record 6.5 million votes for the opposition in the Chavez years.
Opposition leaders say Chavez's condition is serious enough that he must officially step aside and temporarily designate the vice president to lead the country while he is in treatment.
Failure to do so, they say, could paralyze decision-making and lead to fighting within the ruling Socialist Party.
Chavez's backing of Maduro was seen as a snub to Congress head Diosdado Cabello, who is widely considered Maduro's rival despite their public statements to the contrary. Chavez pointedly called for unity and "no intrigue" before leaving.
The opposition also has criticized the secrecy surrounding the details of his medical condition and his snubbing of local doctors in favour of those in Cuba.
"Hiding information for partisan gain without regards for the good of the country is not democratic," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the leader of Venezuela's Democratic Unity coalition.
Venezuela's heavily traded global bonds rallied 2.81 percent in price, according to returns tallied by the J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus (EMBI+).
Chavez's health has major implications for the region.
A handful of Latin American and Caribbean neighbours - from Cuba and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Ecuador - have come to depend on his oil-fuelled largesse to bolster their fragile economies. OPEC member Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves.
War-torn Syria, which is facing tightening sanctions by the United States and the European Union, has received much-needed shipments of diesel from the sympathetic Chavez government.
Despite Chavez's selection of Maduro, his "Chavismo" movement could disintegrate without him given rumoured rivalries among the main players. Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos warned in a research note of "a possibly noisy, and not necessarily short, political transition in Venezuela."
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, is the most popular of the senior "Chavistas" among the president's working-class supporters, thanks to his affable manner, humble background and close ties to Chavez.
His six years as foreign minister have also given him good contacts in countries such as China and Russia. He has an easygoing style but is a firm believer in Chavez's leftist policies and has often led fierce criticism of the United States.
Supporters have been holding vigils for Chavez around the country, and even though he was absent on Monday, his image was everywhere on state media and in public squares.
Messages of support also have poured in from abroad, and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a fellow socialist, joined Chavez in Cuba.
"We've come in solidarity," Correa said. "He is a historic president, a great friend ... and most of all an extraordinary human being. You are not alone in your struggle."
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(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Walker Simon in New York, Sujata Rao in London, Nelson Acosta in Havana, Jack Kimball in Bogota; Editing by Kieran Murray and Xavier Briand)