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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to Cuba on Monday for cancer surgery after naming Vice President Nicolas Maduro his successor and warning his inner circle to refrain from political intrigue.

In an emotional farewell, Venezuelan television showed Chavez pumping his fist and shouting Che Guevara's slogan "Onward to victory, always!" which he also tweaked to a more personal "Onward to life, always!"

Cuba's President Raul Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met 58-year-old Chavez at Havana airport, the island's state news agency reported.

Chavez's health is of paramount importance to Cuba's communist regime, which depends on oil-rich Venezuela for cheap crude, economic aid and international support.

The leftist leader, who was re-elected in October with 55 percent of the vote after proclaiming himself to be cancer-free, faces his fourth round of surgery in Cuba since being diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

"Beyond this life, we will be loyal to Hugo Chavez," said Maduro, 50.

Sidelined by his medical woes, Chavez urged Venezuelans to support Maduro and warned against the perils of a struggle over his succession.

"I only ask you once again to strengthen your unity ... and not fall prey to intrigue," Chavez said Sunday at the swearing in of his new defense minister.

"The enemy is lurking abroad and within, and they will not fail to take advantage of any possible circumstance to pounce as hyenas on the motherland ... and deliver it to imperialism," he warned.

In power since 1999, Chavez was briefly deposed in a 2002 coup, only to be restored by loyal soldiers 47 hours later. Chavez had himself launched a failed coup in 1992 against then-president Carlos Andres Perez.

Rocio San Miguel, an attorney who leads the NGO Citizens Control of Safety, Defense and the National Armed Forces, dismissed Chavez' warnings on sedition.

"The country has so many more serious threats, like the high crime rate ... and presence of armed foreign groups within our borders," he argued.

Chavez has entrusted his care almost exclusively to doctors in secretive Cuba rather than to Venezuelans. The type and severity of Chavez's cancer has never been disclosed.

After returning from 10 days of treatment in Cuba, he stunned his country Saturday by revealing that his cancer had returned and he needed more surgery. He named Maduro his heir, admitting he may have to give up the presidency.

In an indication of the severity of the situation, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa announced via Twitter that he was traveling to Havana to be with his close ally.

Get well wishes flowed in from other Latin American leaders while thousands of messages from supporters were posted on Twitter.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on Chavez's health and said that countries in the hemisphere would expect any election to be conducted in a free and fair manner.

An exiled opposition figure was adamant Chavez could not just hand over his job to an ally.

"The president needs a reminder that in Venezuela we don't have a monarchy where you name your successor who is going to take over the presidency automatically," said Pedro Mena, of the Miami-based Democratic Unity Front.

"We do still have democratic institutions," he said. "A presidential election would have to be called."

The president left as the country prepares to vote in gubernatorial elections on Sunday.

Analysts say the election could give a boost to opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is bidding to return as Miranda state governor after losing to Chavez in the presidential vote.

But Chavez loyalists will also flock to the polls "because they feel that the continuity of the national project could be at risk," political analyst Farith Fraija told AFP.

A firebrand who rose to international prominence as a critic of the United States, the once omnipresent Chavez has kept a strikingly low profile.

He has missed practically every regional meeting over the past year and a half, including the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the Mercosur summit in Brazil and last month's Ibero-American summit.

Maduro's designation as heir underlined both the seriousness of the leader's condition, and the political uncertainty arising from his illness.

The Venezuelan constitution calls for new elections to be held within 30 days if a president is permanently incapacitated either before his inauguration -- scheduled for January 10 -- or in the first four years of his-six year term.

Maduro, a former bus driver, was appointed vice president following Chavez's re-election in October. The former union activist is considered a moderate "Chavista.

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