Venezuela's Chavez assures backers: 'I will live!'

FABIOLA SANCHEZ VIVIAN SEQUERA Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez isn't naming a substitute as he prepares to head to Cuba for surgery to remove a potentially cancerous tumor, and he assured supporters on Thursday that he will be around for a long time.

"I will live! I will live!" Chavez said, pounding the table, during a live television appearance broadcast nationwide from a hall in the Miraflores government palace. He said he will leave on Friday and will undergo the operation early next week.

Shown at the head of a wooden conference table and flanked by Cabinet ministers, Chavez sang, laughed, bantered and urged his nervous-looking ministers and other officials to be of good cheer. At one point, a boy appeared via a video feed from the western city of Maracaibo and recited a couplet about the president's illness and how he will overcome it.

Chavez, who is running for re-election this year, was in full campaign mode and spoke nearly uninterrupted for just over four hours, railing against the "unpatriotic bourgeoisie" and saying there would be no more housing programs for the poor if his opponents take the presidency.

"A capitalist state is never going to subsidize anything," he said, punctuating his words with animated gestures.

"Whatever happens," he promised, "We are going to win by a knockout."

Chavez warned that his opponents will try to destabilize his government while he undergoes surgery. The opposition, he alleged, plans to spread rumors of discontent and division within the country's military and stir intrigue about his health.

The nation's congress earlier unanimously approved permission for Chavez to leave -- a formality required by the constitution.

Under Venezuela's Constitution, the vice president may take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, which the National Assembly may extend for 90 days more.

Pro-Chavez lawmakers scoffed at opposition suggestions that Chavez might need the vice president to temporarily assume office.

Vice President Elias Jaua says Chavez is fully capable of continuing his duties.

Cancer specialists say Chavez's absence could last weeks if he has to stay in Cuba for radiation treatment.

Chavez said earlier this week the same doctors who removed a baseball-size cancerous tumor from his pelvic region in June would be operating on him. The firebrand president had already undergone chemotherapy last year, and in October declared himself "free of illness."

In a letter sent to the National Assembly requesting permission to travel, Chavez described the need for surgery as "urgent."

"I know the news of this new surgery has caused concern among the vast majority of my countrymen. I say it from the heart: I'm certain that we will win this battle," Chavez wrote in the letter. "I will return as I always return: With more energy, more enthusiasm, more happiness."

Chavez has denied rumors the cancer had spread aggressively, but also said his doctors don't know if the new two-centimeter (one-inch) lesion they found over the weekend is malignant.

The president said he had received phone calls of encouragement from allied presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Ollanta Humala of Peru.