Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, was due to return to Cuba today for more surgery after a recurrence of cancer led him to name a successor for the first time, in a sign the disease may force an end to his 14-year rule.
Supporters prepared to gather in city squares across the country, shocked by the news from the 58-year-old socialist leader, who made the announcement in a late-night broadcast on Saturday from the Presidential Palace.
In the clearest indicator yet that health problems could spell an end to his tumultuous years in power, Mr Chavez said supporters should vote for Vice President Nicolas Maduro if a new election had to be held.
"It is absolutely essential that I undergo a new surgical intervention," the President said in his speech, flanked by ashen-faced ministers. "With God's will, like on the previous occasions, we will come out of this victorious. I have complete faith in that."
The usually loquacious Venezuelan leader had sharply cut back his appearances since winning an election on 7 October, saying the campaign and radiation therapy had left him exhausted. His departure from the post of President would trigger an election and mark the end of an era for the Latin American left, depriving them of one of their most acerbic voices. A clutch of nations in the region, from Cuba and Nicaragua to Bolivia and Ecuador, depend on Mr Chavez's oil-fuelled generosity to bolster their fragile economies. An unruly transition from Mr Chavez's highly centralised rule could also raise the spectre of political instability in Venezuela, which holds the world's largest crude oil reserves.
The President's allies lack the charisma that has made him one of the world's most recognisable leaders –and most fierce critics of Washington – and may struggle to control his unwieldy coalition of military leaders and leftist activists. But among them, Mr Maduro – a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader – is the most popular among Venezuelans, thanks to his affable manner, humble background and close relationship with Mr Chavez.
"He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work," Mr Chavez said of Mr Maduro. "In a scenario where they were obliged to hold a new presidential election, you should choose Nicolas Maduro."
Speculation about Mr Chavez's health had grown during a three-week absence from public view that culminated in his latest trip for medical tests in Cuba – where he has undergone three cancer operations since June 2011. He returned to Venezuela on Friday after those tests, and is due to have the operation in Cuba in the next few days. Mr Chavez has never said what type of cancer he is suffering from, though when he was initially diagnosed, the government said his problem was in the pelvic area.