CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez headed to Cuba Saturday for an unknown period of time for chemotherapy after giving up some powers and saying doctors had found no malignant cells in his body after cancer surgery last month.
Chavez, 56, resisted opposition calls to temporarily hand the presidency of the South American OPEC member to his vice president during his absence. Instead, he delegated subordinates limited powers that included budgetary matters.
A former soldier whose long working hours and image of invincibility have helped him win numerous votes, Chavez is now visibly weakened as he plans a bid for re-election in 2012.
Chavez, who has said he had a large tumor removed in June in Cuba, boarded a flight to the Caribbean island Saturday for chemotherapy. Chavez calls Cuba’s Fidel Castro his mentor.
While he has not said what type of cancer he has or for how long he will be out of the country, he implied he would not stay for long.
“I should say that after the extraction of the tumor and all the studies that we have been doing rigorously until today ... no other malignant cell has been detected in my body,” Chavez said at a rally where supporters and government ministers broke into tears.
“Based on the doctors’ examination yesterday, in a few days we’ll be back and ready for a final return,” Chavez said.
His comments would indicate that the cancer has not become metastatic — spread to other parts of the body — and thus more dangerous and difficult to treat.
Chemotherapy refers to medical treatment using drugs intended to destroy cancer cells.
A source close to Chavez’s medical team in Venezuela has told Reuters he is suffering from colon cancer that needs delicate treatment. But the government has not confirmed the type of cancer.
Known as an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, Chavez cut back on hours-long speeches after returning from cancer surgery in Cuba two weeks ago but has still had a remarkably active TV presence.
But rather than lambaste the United States, he has attended Catholic mass and ceremonies to celebrate Venezuela’s 200th independence anniversary in daily television appearances.
Opponents say it is impossible for Chavez to effectively govern the oil-producing nation of 29 million people from a Cuban hospital bed. The president resisted calls to step aside, however, since they echo a power vacuum during a short-lived coup against him back in 2002.
“I am going to delegate some decisions that until now were mine, signatures and decisions, to Vice President Elias Jaua and Jorge Giordani,” Chavez said during a televised cabinet meeting.
He mentioned some budgetary powers and expropriations among the powers he was delegating. Chavez’s socialist government makes widespread use of nationalizations and expropriations to redistribute wealth.
Chavez has polarized politics in the Western Hemisphere since taking office in 1999 with his frequent taunting of the United States, aggressive takeovers in Venezuela’s vital oil sector and nationalizations of large swathes of its economy.
Chavez had two operations he described as “complicated” in Cuba last month — the first for a pelvic abscess and another to remove a large tumor. He was away almost a month until returning to Caracas on July 4 a day before Venezuela’s 200th independence celebration.
He had been warming up for a bid for another six-year term next year when the illness struck.
He is still the only declared candidate for the election but questions inevitably will be asked about his fitness to run in light of his illness. At the very least, his campaign will be shorter and more subdued than he would like. At worst, he may be forced to drop out.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Will Dunham