CARACAS Venezuela's ailing socialist president, Hugo Chavez, will fly to Cuba on Friday for an unknown period to undergo new cancer surgery that has shaken the South American nation before an October presidential election.
"Once more into battle!" said Chavez, 57, in typically militaristic language at a lengthy televised Cabinet meeting on Thursday.
After two operations in Cuba last year, Chavez said he would fly back on Friday for more surgery early next week to remove a lesion in the same pelvic area where a baseball-sized tumor was found during the original treatment.
Chavez had declared himself cured so the downturn has thrown into doubt his campaign for re-election on October 7. Questions also are being asked about his capacity to rule OPEC member Venezuela for another six-year term should he win.
Venezuela's National Assembly, where Chavez has a majority, gave him "indefinite permission" to be in Cuba - raising the specter of another possible lengthy absence after he spent weeks being treated in Havana last year.
"I will return as always, with more energy, more enthusiasm, more joy and determination to take my place in the vanguard," Chavez said in a letter requesting permission to travel abroad for more than five days, as required by the constitution.
"I am completely sure we will win this new battle."
Chavez is a friend of Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro, and is guaranteed discreet treatment there.
Speaking to his Cabinet for more than three hours, Chavez looked upbeat and even sang a ditty.
He said it was unclear how long he would be away, although "it will not be many days" and government was "in order" in the hands of Vice President Elias Jaua, other ministers and "the people," Chavez said.
Opposition politicians - who see the presidential election as their best chance to end Chavez's 13-year rule - have called for him to name a temporary replacement but that looks unlikely. Last year Chavez ran affairs of state from his Havana hospital bed.
"You cannot govern from anywhere that is not in national territory," opposition legislator Alfonso Marquina said. "We demand that the constitution be respected."
Since storming to power in a 1998 election, the sports-loving former soldier has thrived on an image of physical strength and is clearly shaken by his health problems.
Chavez has no obvious successor with a power vacuum and infighting feared should he be incapacitated. The president said he may need radiotherapy treatment after surgery.
While his latest operation is likely to evoke sympathy, analysts say that could be offset by concerns over his fitness to rule. By contrast, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 39, projects an image of youth and energy.
"On one hand, it seems unlikely that Venezuelans want to vote for a weak president," said Gabriel Sanchez Zinny, a Latin American expert with U.S-based Blue Star Strategies consultancy.
"On the other hand, it is possible that he is using his condition to portray himself as a victim, thereby attempting to garner sympathy from voters."
Chavez, who has dominated Venezuela since taking office in 1999 and whose fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric has turned him into one of the world's best-known leaders, said the 2-centimeter lesion is probably malignant.
Cancer experts say that sounds ominous, although Chavez has presented the imminent operation as straightforward.
The government has given no more medical details, meaning Venezuela's rumor mill is in overdrive, with theories ranging from his imminent death to the whole thing being a hoax.
Pro-opposition journalist Nelson Bocaranda, who broke the news of Chavez's latest condition, said on Thursday Chavez was paying the price for ignoring doctor's orders to rest. In his latest column, Bocaranda said he may have metastasis - although the president denied the cancer had spread.
"It is not an encouraging panorama for the man who ignored recommendations with the sole objective of winning the presidency in October," Bocaranda said.
Venezuela's widely traded bonds, buoyed by market hopes for a more business-friendly government in the South American OPEC nation, have jumped in recent days. On Thursday, the Global 2027 bond rose to its highest price in almost two years, climbing 2.25 percent to bid at 84.625.
Before the latest cancer news, polls gave Chavez an edge over Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, for October.
While critics highlight Chavez's authoritarian tendencies to portray him as a dictator bent on imposing Cuban-style communism on Venezuela, he remains immensely popular among the poor, who have benefited from his big spending on welfare policies.
Chavez used Thursday's nearly four-hour Cabinet meeting to remind Venezuelans of his latest social policies including new stipends for pensioners and low-income parents. He predicted a "knockout" in the October election and mocked the opposition for trying to imitate his style and concern for the poor.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)