After 14 years in power, the seemingly indefatigable Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced a relapse of his cancer and designated vice president Nicolas Maduro as his heir apparent.
In what appeared like a presentation of his final will, the president indicated he would like Maduro to take over the reins of power in a post-Chavez period, urging Venezuelans to vote for him in the next presidential elections.
"You choose Maduro as president of the republic," said Chavez told the nation. "I am asking you this from all my heart."
The 58-year-old leftist firebrand is popular with the long-neglected Venezuelan poor for his oil-funded health and education programs but blamed by his critics for rising crime, corruption and inflation.
A charismatic orator, Chavez was weakened after being diagnosed with cancer last year. The operations and chemotherapy left him bald-headed for a while and he gained weight.
Inspired by Cuba's Fidel Castro, he is a self-sufficient revolutionary, controlling the Western Hemisphere's largest oil reserves and one of the most important foreign sources of crude for the United States.
But Chavez embraced many US enemies over the years, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He once famously called former president George W Bush "the devil."
At first he was warmer toward current President Barack Obama, but Chavez soon returned to type and started portraying the United States again as an evil imperialist power.
Born in 1954, Chavez is the son of school teachers from the southwestern state of Barinas and studied at the Military Academy of Venezuela in Caracas. Though a devout Catholic, the Venezuelan leader has divorced twice. He has four children.
In 1992, the then lieutenant colonel Chavez led a failed coup attempt against Carlos Andres Perez, who put his opponent into prison for two years -- an imprisonment that turned the soldier into a hero.
Six years later, Chavez represented a left-wing coalition in the presidential election, which he won with 56 percent of the votes.
Chavez said he wanted another term to make his socialist agenda "irreversible."
But the opposition countered that Chavez was only interested in staying in power for his own sake. The constitution was amended in 2009 to allow the president to seek multiple terms in office.
Chavez was himself the target of a brief coup bid in 2002 that sidelined him for 47 hours.
He survived a crippling two-month strike of the vital oil industry in early 2003, organized by the opposition, and a recall referendum held later that year.
Chavez's speeches are tinged with messianic overtones, leftist rhetoric and an almost religious cult to Bolivar, a 19th century leader of independence movements in several South American countries.
He often peppers his lengthy orations with references to baseball, his favorite sport, and an occasional crude joke.
He is omnipresent on Venezuelan national radio and TV, with his own weekly broadcast "Alo Presidente," during which he takes phone calls from the general public and sometimes break into song.
Chavez has also become a fervent fan of the micro-messaging network Twitter and has more than 3.5 million followers. Despite spending Venezuela's oil money lavishly on social programs, the long-time Venezuelan leader has failed to bridge the yawning gap between the country's rich and poor.
In Latin America, Chavez promoted a leftist alternative to the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas, and was a driving force behind the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
He also diversified trade by inking deals and buying weapons from countries such as Russia, Belarus and China.
Aside from being president, Chavez is commander of the armed forces and head of the country's main party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. As such he sets the agenda for his supporters in Venezuela's single-chamber legislature, where they hold a majority.
Opponents also say the Supreme Court and the judicial branch is stacked with pro-Chavez judges.