CARACAS Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez broke his silence on Wednesday after surgery in Cuba for a suspected recurrence of cancer to insist he was recovering well and "soaring like the condor".
"I send you all my supreme love. We will live and we will recover!" the 57-year-old socialist leader enthused via Twitter from Havana where he was operated on earlier in the week.
"Here I go, soaring like the condor."
Despite an upbeat official assessment of the latest procedure in Cuba, some sources including a prominent pro-opposition Venezuelan journalist suggested Chavez may face a life-threatening spread of the disease discovered last year.
The health saga has raised questions over Chavez's ability to campaign for re-election in October and to rule the South American OPEC member afterward should he win.
His condition also has huge implications around a region where Cuba and other leftist governments in the Caribbean and Central America count on his oil-financed largesse.
The government blames Venezuela's "ultra-right" for fomenting malicious speculation. "Our people should not pay attention to these rumors. We are going through a very emotional time," said Isis Ochoa, the minister for social protection.
Having exuded strength since storming to power as an election outsider in 1998, Chavez's public image and personal ebullience suffered a big blow last year when doctors discovered a cancerous tumor in his pelvis.
MEDIA HATE FIGURES
Although he said he was fully recovered toward the end of 2011, the president returned to Cuba for new surgery last weekend on a probably malignant "lesion" in the same area.
The government said the lesion was completely removed, with test results due soon on the extracted tissue.
Vice President Elias Jaua told state television Chavez was in good spirits when he spoke to him by telephone on Wednesday evening. "He is in a full process of recovery," he said.
"With a firm, energetic and victorious voice, he sent a fraternal greeting to the people, his love and thanks."
There has been no word on when Chavez will return, prompting opposition calls for a replacement to be named.
Nelson Bocaranda, an anti-Chavez Venezuelan journalist who broke the news of his return to Cuba, and Merval Pereira, a well-known commentator for Brazil's O Globo network, have been quoting medical sources to suggest the Venezuelan leader's situation is much more serious than the official version.
The pair have been heavily criticized by Chavez allies.
In an increasingly vitriolic atmosphere, state TV was crammed with mockery of foreign and opposition media, while anti-Chavez activists have sarcastically dubbed Bocaranda the country's only reliable "information minister".
Experts say the pathology results from Chavez's operation on Monday may take up to five days, while a normal recuperation period from that type of surgery would be a week to 10 days.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro has long been Chavez's mentor, and the Venezuelan leader prefers receiving treatment in Havana where there is high security and a lower chance of his medical details being leaked on the tightly controlled island.
In his latest online posting, Bocaranda said on Wednesday there was an atmosphere of "great paranoia" at the Cimeq hospital in Havana where Chavez was presumably being treated.
A Brazilian doctor helping assess Chavez had concluded the use of steroids to give him strength since last year's operation had hastened the recurrence of a new tumor, he said.
"If the decision is to give him more chemotherapy from April, as we said last week, the use of steroids will be forbidden," Bocaranda added on his closely watched www.runrun.es site.
"That is a big worry for the patient because his physical deterioration, with such a strong cocktail of chemicals, would become evident very quickly."
Cuba has a lot at stake in Chavez's future.
It receives about 100,000 barrels per day of cheap oil from Caracas in return for supplying doctors, nurses, teachers and others to work in Venezuelan social projects.
Chavez's rival for the October 7 poll is Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor who hopes to woo former Chavez voters with a promise of a Brazilian-style "modern left" government.
He repeatedly wishes Chavez a speedy recovery "so he can see the changes coming to Venezuela."
Before the announcement that he would need more surgery, opinion polls showed Venezuelans broadly split - a third pro-Chavez, a third pro-opposition and a third undecided.
But the polls indicate Chavez has the edge in voter enthusiasm due to his popularity among Venezuela's poor and a big increase in welfare spending for the most needy.
While the president may get a "sympathy bump" in opinion polls from his latest health setback, analysts say perceptions of weakness - particularly in contrast with Capriles' youthful image - could offset that.
The OPEC nation's widely traded bonds have jumped on investor perceptions of a more market-friendly opposition's enhanced chance of winning the presidential poll in October.
Chavez has avoided grooming a successor, so rumors abound as to who could take over if he were incapacitated.
Two heavyweight allies, vice president Jaua and Congress head Diosdado Cabello, are widely rumored to be at odds. Yet they made a public show of friendship in parliament on Tuesday, smiling and pledging unity.
Neither man, nor any other of Chavez's closest allies, have his man-of-the-people charisma or the political talents that have enabled him to thwart the opposition for 13 years.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Caracas and Nelson Acosta in Havana. Editing by Christopher Wilson)