CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will return home next week from Cuba where he is recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous tumour, Colombian leader Juan Manuel Santos said on Wednesday.
Although the socialist leader’s return will calm anxious supporters and put him back at the helm of government, Chavez still faces the tricky prospect of radiation treatment as he heads into the campaign for an October 7 presidential vote.
“We found him in good health, happy, in high spirits. He told me his recovery is going well,” Santos told reporters at the end of a visit to Cuba.
“He said we would stay a few more days and he thinks he will return to Venezuela at the beginning of next week.”
Chavez’s absence in Cuba since February 24 has unsettled Venezuela, with rumours flying about the state of his health and the opposition calling for a temporary replacement to be named.
But just like last year, when he had a first operation in Cuba, Chavez appears to be gearing up for another carefully choreographed triumphant homecoming.
Footage of the two South American presidents broadcast on Venezuelan state television showed them laughing after a sit-down meeting, Chavez in a signature track suit echoing the favourite attire of his aging mentor, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Colombia’s conservative government has clashed with Chavez in the past, but the two Andean nations have buried the hatchet since Santos’ election, and renewed trade and security ties.
After surgeons removed a baseball-sized tumour from Chavez’s pelvic area, he made an emotional return in June last year, declaring to a crowd of thousands outside the presidential palace in Caracas he had a tough fight ahead.
Chavez later declared himself “completely cured” after several rounds of chemotherapy, but surprised the nation last month when he said he would be flying back to Cuba to remove a lesion in the same area.
The 57-year-old president said in a televised appearance on Sunday he would need radiotherapy, throwing a wild card into a contentious election year where Chavez is facing a tough battle against the opposition trying to end his 13-year rule.
Voters will decide in October whether Chavez should serve another six-year term and are closely watching news about his health from afar.
His election rival, 39-year-old opposition leader and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, is keeping quiet on the health saga, simply wishing Chavez a speedy recovery. But Capriles may benefit politically from the contrast between his own image of youth and energy and that of the ailing president.
Chavez, famous for his high-energy, on-the-street style and marathon speeches, will have to prove he is strong enough to run the country and lead a successful election campaign, all while undergoing another round of cancer treatment.
In Cuba, Chavez has been giving orders to visiting Cabinet members, firing off tweets and phoning into state TV. Although he has sounded upbeat and chatty, rumours abound that he has a life-threatening condition, possibly metastasis.
The government has been secretive about what kind of cancer the president has or how serious his state is.
“The people are all nervous, agitated,” 38-year-old Caracas resident Rodrigo Gonzalez said about the scant information.
Markets have also reacted to the news, with the OPEC nation’s widely traded bonds jumping on investor perceptions that the opposition might have a better chance of winning the presidential race.
But opinion polls show Chavez has the edge in voter enthusiasm due to his popularity among Venezuela’s poor and a big increase in welfare spending for the most needy.
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo, Marianna Parraga and Eyanir Chinea, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney