Back in Cuba for his third cancer operation, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is already planning for a fatal future, designating vice president as his political heir. 

The man Chávez wants to succeed him is already familiar with the limelight of the presidency after having long served as the international face of Venezuela whenever the socialist president was unable to. 

An intensely loyal 50-year-old former bus driver, Nicolás Maduro had been foreign minister since 2006 until Chávez tapped him as his vice president three days after winning re-election on Oct. 7

If the cancer-stricken Chávez survives until his Jan. 10 inauguration but dies during the first four years of his term, the constitution says that Maduro would take over temporarily and that new elections should be held within 30 days.

Chávez told Venezuelans on Saturday night if he isn't able to stay on he wants them to elect Maduro as his successor.

As a diplomat, Maduro has been a key player in consolidating the ALBA bloc of leftist Latin American nations including Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and others, and in building closer ties with Iran, Russia and China in an effort to counteract U.S. influence. He is thought to have close ties to Cuba's former and current leaders Fidel and Raul Castro.

Chávez has always shown great affection for Maduro, kidding him publicly about the submarine sandwiches the burly foreign minister consumes. The two have been friends since the 1980s, when Chávez formed a clandestine movement that eventually launched a failed 1992 coup.

For a diplomat, Maduro is a man of surprisingly few words. Yet he is also one of the few members of Chávez's government who makes public statements on policy.

He got into politics as a teenager, joining the Socialist League, which sent him to Cuba for training in union organizing. He then became a union organizer in the Caracas Metro system.

During Chávez's visits to Cuba for cancer treatment, the mustachioed Maduro was among the few aides at his side.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez flew to Cuba on Monday for a third cancer operation after announcing the vice president as his political heir.

State television showed images of Chávez hugging Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other aides before boarding the presidential jet.

Chávez raised a fist as he climbed the stairs alone. From the doorway of the plane, he waved and shouted "Long live our homeland!"

The president has said he will undergo cancer surgery in Havana in the coming days. Chávez, who had returned from Cuba early Friday, said on television 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, Maduro should be elected as Venezuela's leader to continue his socialist movement.

State television reported that Chávez departed for Cuba after 1 a.m. on Monday. Video of his departure was shown hours later.

"I hope to return soon," Chávez said at an earlier meeting with military commanders where he promoted his defense minister, Diego Molero, to the rank of admiral in chief.

Seated together at the presidential palace, Chávez showed Molero and other military commanders a golden sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chávez 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," Chávez told them. He urged them "not to give in to intrigue."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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