Chavez surgery rocks Venezuela ahead of election

Wed Feb 22, 2012 9:23pm GMT

By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's imminent departure for more cancer surgery in Cuba has thrown his re-election campaign into uncertainty and once again shaken the socialist leader's passionate supporters.

Though the 57-year-old former soldier looked stoic and played down the dangers of his latest condition, the announcement inevitably raises questions over his ability to stand for the October 7 presidential vote - or rule beyond it.

Chavez, who has dominated Venezuela since taking office in 1999 and whose fierce anti-U.S. rhetoric has turned him into one of the world's best-known leaders, said he will head back to Havana for the next operation by the weekend.

He said a two-centimetre lesion had been discovered in his pelvis where surgeons removed a baseball-sized tumour in June, and that there was a high probability it was malignant.

His challenger for the presidency in October, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, was quick to wish Chavez well.

"I wish my rival a successful operation, a quick recovery and a long life," Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, said on Wednesday in a careful tweet.

Capriles, who won the Democratic Unity coalition's primary this month, does not want to give any impression he is exulting in Chavez's health problems. He wants to focus on issues such as crime and unemployment, rather than a head-to-head battle.

Chavez's new surgery could hardly have come at a worse time for the government because Capriles - a centre-left politician who exudes youth and energy - picked up momentum from his primary win and the campaigns were just starting to heat up.   Continued...

Powered by Reuters AlertNet. AlertNet provides news, images and insight from the world's disasters and conflicts and is brought to you by Reuters Foundation.