CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's ailing President Hugo Chavez flew to Cuba on Monday for cancer surgery, vowing to return quickly despite his unprecedented admission 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 pumped a fist in the air as he set off for the latest chapter of a tumultuous rule that has seen a brief coup against him, waves of industry nationalizations, a crippling oil strike and heightened acrimony with the United States.
The 58-year-old socialist leader is facing his fourth operation since mid-2011 for a third bout of an undisclosed form of cancer in the pelvic 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 announcement that more malignant cells had been found, despite twice declaring himself completely cured in the past.
He won re-election in October and is due to start a new six-year term on January 10. Chavez'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.
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.
"I trust completely in my soldiers," Chavez 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 expected devaluation of the bolivar currency, and a proposed amnesty for Chavez's jailed and exiled political foes.
Campaigning nevertheless continues for Sunday's vote for 23 governorships, where Chavez's candidates are hoping to build on the momentum of his presidential win to wrest some of the seven regions governed by the opposition.
Analysts are split on the impact of Chavez's new cancer troubles, some saying it will generate a wave of sympathy that will benefit his candidates, while others argue his physical absence from the campaign trail will harm them.
Opposition leaders say Venezuela is entering potentially dangerous waters and a temporary president should be named during Chavez's absence, as allowed by the constitution.
According to the constitution, Congress head Diosdado Cabello - widely considered a rival of Maduro's despite their public protestations to the contrary - would step in temporarily should Chavez be incapacitated before the January 10 date.
Maduro would assume the job should Chavez be incapacitated after that date. Chavez pointedly called for unity and "no intrigue" before leaving.
While sympathizing with Chavez and wishing him good health, the opposition has criticized the secrecy around medical details and his snubbing of local doctors in favor of those in Cuba.
"Hiding information for partial gain, without taking into account the national interest, is not a democratic procedure, it does not give good results," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the leader of Venezuela's Democratic Unity coalition.
Chavez left Venezuela in the early hours of Monday and was met in Cuba by President Raul Castro. "Onward to victory forever, onward to life forever! Long live the fatherland!" an emotional Chavez boomed to supporters on the runway as he walked up to the plane.
Venezuela's global bonds, among the most traded hard-currency emerging-market papers, move sharply on news of Chavez's health, with downturns generally driving up prices.
On Monday, Venezuelan bonds rallied 3.08 percent in price, according to returns tallied by the J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus (EMBI+).
Chavez's health also has major implications for the region. A handful of Latin American and Caribbean neighbors - from Cuba and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Ecuador - have come to depend on his oil-fueled largesse to bolster their fragile economies. OPEC member Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves.
Many analysts believe that despite Chavez's anointment of Maduro, his "Chavismo" movement could disintegrate without him, especially given rumored rivalries among the main players.
"We remain of the view there could very well be no Chavismo without Chavez," Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said, warning in a research note of "a possibly noisy, and not necessarily short, political transition in Venezuela."
Among the senior "Chavistas," Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, is widely viewed as the most popular, thanks to his affable manner and close ties to Chavez.
While his humble background appeals to the Chavez's working class supporters, Maduro's six years as foreign minister have also given him good contacts in China, Russia and other influential nations. 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.
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.
Henrique Capriles, a state governor, lost to Chavez in October but he received 44 percent of ballots cast, a record 6.5 million votes for the opposition, and could run again.
Capriles, 40, who is fighting to retain the Miranda governorship on Sunday against former vice president Elias Jaua, has complained Chavez is treating Venezuela like a "monarchy" by naming Maduro as his preferred successor.
Supporters have been holding vigils for Chavez round the nation, 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, the latest on Monday from a former foe-turned-friend, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos. "Our solidarity with President Chavez in these difficult moments," he tweeted. (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 Philip Barbara)
Updated Date: Dec 11, 2012 01:00 AM