CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez revealed Thursday night that he is fighting cancer after having a tumor removed in Cuba, but assured his countrymen that he is doing well as he sought to cool growing questions about his health and ability to govern.
Chavez said in a televised talk that the operation took out a growth in which there were “cancerous cells.” The 56-year-old president said the surgery was done after an initial operation nearly three weeks ago for the removal of a pelvic abscess.
He called his situation “this new battle that life has placed before us.”
Noticeably thinner and paler after his surgeries, Chavez read from a prepared speech with a sad and serious expression. He stood at a podium, flanked by the Venezuelan flag and a portrait of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, the namesake of his Bolivarian Revolution political movement.
Chavez didn’t say what type of cancer was found or give any details on the treatment he is receiving. He said it was a mistake not have taken better care of his health through medical checkups.
“What a fundamental error,” he said.
Chavez also didn’t say how much longer he expected to remain in Cuba recovering, and there was no information on when or where his message was recorded.
His appearance came after government efforts, including Tuesday’s release of photos and video showing Chavez with Fidel Castro, had failed to quell growing speculation among Venezuelans about his health.
Citing Chavez’s health, the government announced Wednesday that it was canceling a two-day summit of Latin American leaders that Chavez would have hosted next week on the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s declaration of independence from Spain.
Chavez’s revelation, and the lack of any return date, was likely to further generate speculation in Venezuela about which of the president’s allies could potentially take his place if necessary. Vice President Elias Jaua has led government events in Chavez’s absence, and the leftist president’s elder brother, Adan, recently stepped up his public profile by rallying supporters at a weekend prayer meeting for Chavez’s health.
A group of Chavez supporters gathered in Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas late Thursday chanting before television cameras: “Chavez, friend, the people are with you!”
There was no immediate reaction from the main opposition coalition, and several opposition leaders did not return calls seeking comment.
Chavez said his first surgery was carried out June 11 for a “strange formation in the pelvic region that required an emergency operation due to the imminent risk of a generalized infection.” It was previously thought the procedure was June 10.
After that surgery, Chavez said, doctors began to suspect other problems, and Castro brought him the news of the tumor. A series of tests “confirmed the presence of an abscessed tumor with the presence of cancerous cells, which made necessary a second operation that allowed for the complete extraction of the tumor,” he said.
He didn’t say when the second operation was performed.
Chavez said his condition has been “evolving satisfactorily while I receive a complementary treatment to combat the different types of cells found, and thereby continue on the path to my complete recovery.”
“Now I wanted to speak to you from this steep hill, from which I feel that I’m coming out of another abyss. … I think we’ve achieved it. Thank you, my God,” Chavez said.
After Chavez’s speech, the vice president appeared on television at the presidential palace, calling for support and unity among Venezuelans.
“It’s up to us, people and government, to keep advancing,” Jaua said, according to the state-run Venezuelan News Agency. “We feel extremely optimistic about this battle that President Chavez has begun for a full recovery of his health.”
Before Chavez’s appearance, some in the opposition had demanded more information about his condition. Some government opponents had also urged Chavez to temporarily cede his duties to the vice president while recovering in Cuba.
Chavez’s allies, however, insisted that he remains firmly in control of government affairs, even as he has been recovering.
In videos released Wednesday, Chavez animatedly discussed Latin American history and his days as an army paratrooper with Castro. Two of Chavez’s daughters and a granddaughter joined in the encounter as the two men sat chatting.
Finishing his speech Thursday, Chavez recited a revolutionary slogan often used by Castro: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious!”
Before finishing, he added: “Until my return!”
After his appearance, some of his closest allies went on state television. National Assembly president Fernando Soto Rojas, standing alongside other supporters, said Chavez is in good hands in Cuba.
“We wish for him to get better soon! Onward, commander!”
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.