“Long live the fatherland,” Chavez said.
One of his closest aides, Elias Jaua, later recounted in his Twitter feed how he had hugged Chavez. “I said, ‘Go and come back,’” Jaua wrote. “And he said, ‘Of course, I’ll be back, Elias.’ Amen!”
In his struggle with cancer, Chavez, 58, has returned from treatment in Cuba several times already. But his announcement Saturday that “some malignant cells” had been detected in his pelvic region that would necessitate surgery in Havana’s Cimeq hospital, where he has been treated before, and his instructions that Maduro had his confidence and should take over if necessary, were sober reminders that his illness is proving hard to beat.
“If something happens that sidelines me, which under the constitution requires a new presidential election, you should elect Nicolas Maduro as president,” Chavez said, sitting at a table with Maduro at his side. “I ask that of you from my heart.”
Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan government official who is an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, called the announcement “basically a farewell speech.”
“He said goodbye to power,” Naim said. “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.”
Chavez’s departure from office would mark the end of a tumultuous rule in which the leftist former army officer harnessed Venezuela’s considerable oil wealth to shower the poor with social programs while engineering a sharp diplomatic shift away from the country’s historical ally, the United States.
Chavez’s government forged alliances with some of Washington’s most intransigent adversaries, including Cuba, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He has used his lock on practically all levers of power, from the courts to the congress, to push forward the nationalization 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 and the impact it could have on the future of the country.
No one in the government is authorized to discuss Chavez’s medical condition except Chavez himself, who astonished his countrymen in June 2011 by telling them he had gone under the knife twice to remove a malignant growth. A third surgery followed in February.
Chavez has never disclosed what kind of cancer he has or where it is located. He has twice pronounced himself cured, without providing details.