Venezuela's Chavez declares himself free of cancer
La Fria: Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez declared him cancer-free on Thursday, four months after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that shook the South American nation ahead of a 2012 presidential vote.
"I am free of illness," Chavez, 57, said in an address to Venezuelans after touching down from Cuba in a western state where he was making a pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine.
Despite the ebullient socialist's declarations, most experts say it is impossible for a cancer patient to be considered out of danger until at least two years after treatment has finished.
Dressed in a green military uniform and speaking confidently, Chavez said the tests he underwent in Cuba this week had shown there were no malignant cells in his body following four cycles of chemotherapy after the June 20 operation in Havana.
"A vital stage has concluded. Everything went perfectly. I got top marks, 20 out of 20," he said. "The new Chavez is back ... We will live and we will continue living."
Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has transformed Venezuela with sweeping nationalizations, huge injections of cash into social projects in the slums, an authoritarian and one-man style of leadership, and constant jibes at Washington.
Adored by supporters, he is viewed as a clownish but dangerous dictator by foes who say Chavez wants to install an unwanted Cuban-style communism in Venezuela.
Chavez has not given precise details of his cancer, but the surgery was in his abdomen region. There has been intense speculation his condition is worse than he has let on.
Touching down at La Fria airport, Chavez hugged a group of smiling ministers and warmly greeted supporters, singing with some and slapping the backs of others.
After a speech carried on all Venezuelan TV and radio stations, he set off driving through the hills to the Christ of La Grita shrine where Chavez said he had to fulfill a vow.
"I am more and more Christian. Socialism is the way of Christ. Love, social justice, that is Christ," said Chavez, who has mixed communism, Catholicism and veneration of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar during a remarkable rule.
Exuding confidence, Chavez pledged to win next year's election when he will face an opposition coalition candidate to be chosen at a February primary.
Chavez has benefited from a sympathy bounce in polls, taking him to an approval rating near 60 percent. But analysts say that may fall if his health deteriorates again and he is seen as unfit to run a re-election campaign or rule for another six years.
"It will be easier for a donkey to pass through the eye of a needle than for the opposition to win the elections," Chavez said in an idiosyncratic use of a saying in the Bible.
Famous for swilling coffee, sleeping just a few hours and exhausting aides with his round-the-clock, high-energy style, Chavez said it was time to tone down his lifestyle.
"I have decided, and it is necessary, to change radically my habits to preserve my health and accompany you in the new fatherland."