CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Cuba on Monday for a fourth cancer-related operation after designating the vice president as his political heir.
Chavez was greeted warmly by Cuban President Raul Castro in the early morning darkness after his plane touched down at Havana's Jose Marti Airport. The men hugged and smiled for the cameras but made no comments about the visit or the Venezuelan leader's condition.
The 58-year-old president plans to undergo cancer surgery in Havana in the coming days. Chavez said on television in Venezuela on Saturday that tests had found a return of "some malignant cells" in the same area where tumors were previously removed.
He also said for the first time that if he suffers complications, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should be elected as Venezuela's leader to continue his socialist movement.
State television reported that Chavez departed for Cuba after 1 a.m. on Monday.
In video shown hours later, Chavez hugged Maduro and other aides before boarding the presidential jet.
Chavez raised a fist as he climbed the stairs alone. From the doorway of the plane, he waved and shouted "Long live our homeland!"
"I hope to return soon," Chavez said at an earlier meeting in Venezuela with military commanders where he promoted his defense minister, Diego Molero, to the rank of admiral in chief.
Seated together at the presidential palace, Chavez showed Molero and other military commanders a golden sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chavez held the sword as he told the officers that he fully trusts them.
He also warned of potential conspiracies by enemies, both foreign and domestic.
"I'm totally sure that our homeland is safe," Chavez told them. He urged them "not to give in to intrigue."
Chavez, a former army paratroop commander who was first elected in 1998, won re-election in October and is due to be sworn in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10.
Lawmakers on Sunday voted unanimously to grant Chavez permission to leave the country for the operation.
He has called his relapse a "new battle" and said there are risks. It will be his third operation to remove cancerous tissue in about a year and a half. An initial surgery discovered the cancer.
The president underwent surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer in Cuba in June 2011, after an earlier operation for a pelvic abscess. He had another cancer surgery last February after a tumor appeared in the same area. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Chavez said in July that tests showed he was cancer-free. But he had recently reduced his public appearances and on Nov. 27 returned to Cuba for hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Such treatment is regularly used to help heal tissues damaged by radiation treatment.
Chavez's supporters poured into city plazas across the nation on Sunday to pray for his recovery. Some wiped tears, while others held photos of him and chanted in unison: "Ooh-Ah! Chavez isn't going away!"
Several Latin American leaders sent messages wishing Chavez a speedy recovery. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a close ally, flew to Cuba on Monday to visit with Chavez.
"He has a very grave health problem," Correa told reporters at Havana's international airport. "We came to give him a hug in the name of the Ecuadorean people ... he is not alone."
In Venezuela, meanwhile, Maduro inaugurated a new cable car system in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas. "Long live Hugo Chavez!," he told applauding supporters.
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap