Chavez back in Venezuela after cancer surgery

By Ian James

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 12:05 a.m. MDT

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez returned home to Venezuela looking haggard but expressing optimism he will survive after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.

Chavez said he has been praying and is confident he will triumph in his re-election bid this year. He smiled and waved as he stepped off the plane Friday night, but his expression turned sober as he referred to his unfinished struggle with cancer.

"I lift up a prayer ... in this battle for life," Chavez said in a televised speech on the tarmac. "I'm going to live. We're going to live, and we're going to keep on overcoming. And in that commitment I will give everything, all the spiritual and physical strength that fits in my heart."

Then, he added: "Or rather, that doesn't fit. ... It's a force much bigger than the Caribbean."

Chavez arrived after three weeks in Cuba as many Venezuelans are wondering about his long-term prospects and about how his health will evolve ahead of the country's Oct. 7 presidential election. Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, such as the type of cancer, spurring speculation about how his cancer might affect the country's political landscape.

His close allies have assured Venezuelans that there is no Plan B and that Chavez is the only leader of his movement heading into the elections.

Chavez invited his supporters to the presidential palace on Saturday, saying he would address them.

"We will live and we will win," Chavez said, adding later: "United, we will be invincible."

Chavez was greeted by his vice president and Cabinet ministers, and soldiers standing at attention.

He stepped down the stairs from the plane hand-in-hand with his mother and one of his daughters. He walked gingerly and seemed less energetic than in previous appearances.

At times, Chavez's mother and another of his daughters seemed on the verge of tears. His mother raised a hand to his head to bless him.

Chavez, whose eyes appeared a bit puffy, said he had prayed with his family in the morning before leaving Cuba.

"This new return comes converted into a prayer, a song, a commitment, a prayer to God," Chavez said. "A new prayer of hope in this battle that it's been up to us to fight."

Turning to politics, he said his opponents represent "the agenda of the right."

He accused opposition-aligned Venezuelan news media of trying to provoke fear and uncertainty. "I call on the country to stay calm," he said.

The 57-year-old leader is seeking another six-year term in the October presidential vote. His rival, 39-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, has criticized Chavez's handling of his cancer, saying that if he were president his health would "be a matter of public knowledge."

Before Chavez's return, his last appearance on Venezuelan television had come Monday night in a video showing him walking with two of his daughters in a garden in Havana. Chavez appeared in prerecorded video footage during his stay in Cuba, but Friday was the first time state television showed him in live video since he left for Havana on Feb. 24.

The president has said his Feb. 26 surgery in Cuba removed a tumor from the same location in the pelvic region where another tumor was removed in June.

After he was diagnosed with cancer, Chavez underwent an initial surgery in June that removed a tumor the size of a baseball.

He then had four rounds of chemotherapy and said tests showed no signs of any cancerous cells. But last month, he announced he was returning to Cuba for surgery to have a lesion removed.

Chavez has described the most recent tumor as measuring about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches). He has declined to identify the precise location where the tumors appeared.

He next plans to undergo radiation therapy, although it's unclear how soon that will begin.

"I feel very recovered," Chavez said at the airport. He said he had regained weight and "I'm stepping up the rhythm little by little again."

He also said that as his mentor Fidel Castro saw him off at the airport in Havana, Castro told him: "Chavez, I know you. Tell your people that you have to be disciplined. They're going to understand, and nobody should think that everything has passed already."

"No," Chavez added, "We're overcoming, but we should continue being rigorously disciplined."

Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda and AP photographer Fernando Llano contributed to this report.

Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap

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