Discuss as:

Chavez ally re-elected, cementing position as possible caretaker president

Leo Ramirez / AFP - Getty Images

The president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello speaks outside the National Assembly in Caracas on Saturday. He was elected Assembly chief on Saturday as President Hugo Chavez recovered from another cancer surgery in Cuba.

Venezuelan lawmakers re-elected a close ally of President Hugo Chavez as Assembly chief on Saturday, paving the way for him to become a caretaker president if the socialist leader does not recover from cancer surgery.

Diosdado Cabello, a combative ex-soldier, was cemented by the “Chavista”-dominated legislature as the third most powerful figure in government, behind Chavez and Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"As a patriot ... I swear to be supremely loyal in everything I do, to defend the fatherland, its institutions, and this beautiful revolution led by our Comandante Hugo Chavez," Cabello said as he took the oath, his hand on the constitution. 

Chavez was elected in 1999 and was among the first of the so-called “pink tide” of elected leftist leaders in Latin America. He allies himself with the Castro regime in Cuba, President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Evo Morales in Bolivia. 

In the last 18 months, Chavez, 58, has undergone four surgeries in Cuba, where he is currently recovering. On Thursday, the Venezuelan government said he was suffering from a “severe” respiratory infection that hindered his breathing. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.

Hours before the vote to re-elect Cabello, thousands of Chavez supporters clad in red gathered, chanting: "We are all Chavez! Our comandante will be well! He will return!" 

If Chavez had to step down, or died, Cabello would take over the running of the country as Assembly president and a new election would be organized within 30 days. Chavez's heir apparent, Maduro, would be the Socialist Party's candidate. 

The opposition says Chavez's absence would be just the latest sign that he is no longer fit to govern. Cabello slammed their criticism.

"Get this into your heads," he shouted. "Hugo Chavez was elected president and he will continue to be president beyond Jan. 10. No one should have any doubt." His fellow Socialist Party lawmakers cheered. 

The opposition, who had days before demanded details of the president’s health, sat stony-faced. One of their legislators had earlier told the session that it was not just the head of state who was ill: "The republic is sick," he said. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed reporting.

More world stories from NBC News:

Follow World News from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook