UPDATE 4-Venezuela's Chavez says no reshuffle, must slow pace

Fri Jul 8, 2011 1:05am GMT
 

* President seeks to show he is still in charge

* Hosts first televised cabinet meeting since his return

* Says evening routine is now just "bath, supper, bed" (Updates with quotes, details)

By Daniel Wallis

CARACAS, July 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez kept all his ministers in their jobs on Thursday, dismissing rumors of a reshuffle and seeking to show cancer surgery had not loosened his grip on the OPEC nation.

Hosting his first televised cabinet meeting since returning from Havana, the 56-year-old Chavez looked pale but back to his folksy, chatty self in many ways as he cracked jokes and pored over spreadsheets of housing projects and doctors' salaries.

"Never in my life have I had so much determination to win a battle. Never. And we are going to win it," Chavez said, referring to the two operations in Cuba that raised doubts about his fitness to run for re-election next year.

"There have been so many rumors about my health ... that I only returned from Cuba because there was almost a coup, division in the military, in the government. Well, sit down and wait, gentlemen of the opposition, unpatriotic conspirators."

Some local media had speculated he might reshuffle his cabinet this week, possibly naming a new vice president, and analysts had been looking for clues to any possible successor should Chavez decide not to enter the 2012 election.

Instead, the charismatic but authoritarian socialist leader said he was keeping all his ministers in their roles, thanked them for their work while he was recuperating abroad, and said the members of his military high command would stay the same.

Chavez reasserted his political domination of the country he has ruled since 1999 with a surprise pre-dawn return to Caracas on Monday that electrified supporters, calmed his inner circle and left opponents struggling for a response.

But doubts remain about his health and whether he can continue to govern the nation of 29 million people effectively. One source close to Chavez's doctors told Reuters he has colon cancer and faces lengthy chemotherapy treatment.

There has been no confirmation of that, however, and senior government officials say the president is recovering well.

"BATH, SUPPER AND BED"

In another example of Chavez returning to the airwaves that was reminiscent of the time before his surgery, he toured a military base earlier on Thursday, joking with cadets that he mustn't over do it and needed "to rein in the old horse."

He appeared to show some discomfort walking and said he needed to slow down his famously punishing leadership style.

Famous for swilling coffee, burning the midnight oil and a whirlwind style of government including calls to aides at all hours, the workaholic Chavez said his routine was now strictly controlled and his evenings were just "bath, supper and bed."

Announcing a "supreme return" that he said would propel his career to 2021, he exhorted the next generation of soldiers to watch their health. He has acknowledged neglecting his own.

"I'm in a fight, one of life's ambushes," Chavez said. "One thing I want to remind you: look after your health."

Chavez, who graduated from the same Caracas military academy, has made the armed forces a pillar of his leftist self-styled "revolution" and he took pleasure in drilling the cadets and singing the academy anthem along with them.

Since his treatment in Cuba, the president has removed the word "death" from his public vocabulary in an apparently emotional reaction to what he has been through. The fiery orator had for years often finished speeches with the cry: "Fatherland, Socialism or Death!"

At the military base, the former paratrooper also mocked rumors that his illness had been invented or exaggerated to shore up his popularity ahead of next year's election.

"After two operations, some say it's a lie," he said. "This morning I read something incredible: that this was an invention of Fidel Castro and Chavez ... If you could see my abdomen, which I won't show you obviously, there are so many stitches."

Chavez said he had surgery on June 10 in Cuba for a pelvic abscess and another operation on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor in an unspecified part of his body. The unanswered question is whether it has spread or was removed completely. (Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Pascal Fletcher and Marianna Parraga)

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