CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was heading back to Cuba on Sunday for a third cancer surgery after naming his vice president as his choice to lead the country if the illness cuts short his presidency.

Chavez's announcement on Saturday night unleashed new uncertainty about the country's future, and his supporters poured into city plazas across the nation to pray for his recovery from what appears to be an aggressive type of cancer.

Chavez acknowledged the seriousness of his health situation in a televised address, saying 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.

Several outside medical experts said that based on Chavez's account of his condition and his treatment so far, they doubt the cancer can be cured.

Chavez said he hasn't given up.

"With the grace of God, we'll come out victorious," said Chavez, who held up a crucifix and kissed it during his Saturday- night appearance.

The 58-year-old president is still scheduled to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10. He has been in office for nearly 14 years, since 1999.

Bush still hospitalized

HOUSTON - Former President George H.W. Bush remains in stable condition in his third week of hospitalization in Houston for treatment of a bronchitis-related cough.

Methodist Hospital spokesman George Kovacik said Sunday that there was no change in the 88-year-old Bush's condition. Doctors have said over the past several days that the 41st president continues to improve but they're in no hurry to release him.

Bush was admitted to the hospital the day after Thanksgiving.

Birds in the pants are worth 20 in the slam

MIAMI - A Miami man faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly trying to smuggle birds from Cuba into the United States in his pants. The U.S. Attorney's Office says that Alberto Diaz Gonzalez pleaded guilty Thursday to attempting to import undeclared wildlife from the Caribbean island. He is scheduled to be sentenced in February.

Diaz returned to Miami from Havana on Oct. 20. Court documents show he told U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in Miami that he was not carrying any wildlife.

But authorities say that when officers searched Diaz, they found 16 Cuban bullfinches hidden in his pants. They say Diaz admitted that the birds were from Cuba and that he planned to sell them.

Malibu Moby towed to burial at sea

MALIBU, CALIF. - The decaying carcass of a whale that washed onto a California beach was towed out to sea Saturday, five days after it washed ashore and created a stench near the Malibu homes of movie stars and millionaires.

A tugboat hired by a homeowners' association towed the carcass of the huge fin whale about 20 miles from shore, Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Brian Riley said.

The 40-foot-long, 20-ton juvenile male washed ashore Monday near Point Dume, attracting onlookers who wandered down the narrow beach to look at the remains.

Jonsie Ross, marine-mammal coordinator for the California Wildlife Center, said evidence suggests the whale was hit by a ship.

Fin whales are endangered, and about 2,300 live along the West Coast. They're the second-largest species of whale after blue whales and can grow up to 85 feet, weigh up to 80 tons and live to be 90.

- Daily News wire services