CARACAS (Reuters) - Looking stronger after cancer treatment, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez declared himself reborn phoenix-like for his 57th birthday Thursday in a sign the socialist president believes he is overcoming his illness.
“I’ve arrived at 57 being reborn, a new life, my eternal return,” said Chavez, whom opponents accuse of exploiting his health problems to further promote a personality cult.
In the past, Chavez came back triumphant from a failed coup he led, and a putsch that briefly drove him from power.
“I’m like the phoenix, I’ve returned to life,” he said in an early morning phone call to state TV from the presidential palace, where a cockerel crowed in the background.
Later, Chavez sang and jigged on the balcony of the palace as crowds cheered him on a day of supporters’ celebrations in honour of his birthday around the South American nation.
“I’m halfway through my life, another 57 years are coming!” joked an ebullient Chavez, sporting a yellow shirt he said his daughter had given him as a gift and a pair of sunglasses sent by Ecuador’s fellow leftist leader Rafael Correa.
In another sign the garrulous Chavez may be returning to his comfort zone, he has begun baiting Washington again, this time over President Barack Obama’s debt crisis.
“The Yankees are broke. They have no money to pay their debt. It’s a good thing they don’t owe us anything, we’d have to give them a credit,” he joked.
“Shall we give Obama a loan?” he asked the crowd, who cried “No!” in response. “Don’t be mean!” Chavez said, laughing.
CHAVEZ EYES RE-ELECTION
In the state TV interview, Chavez said he expected the tough stage of his illness to be over by the end of this year.
He invited Latin American presidents to a summit in December that he had earlier cancelled for health reasons.
A former soldier whose greatest victory was the collapse of a 2002 military revolt after massive popular protests demanded his return, Chavez has used the years since to nationalize much of the economy of the major U.S. oil supplier.
He has made two trips to Cuba for an operation to remove a large tumour and to undergo a first session of chemotherapy.
Chavez, who wants at least one more six-year term and often taunts foes that he will be in office for decades, clarified this week he still intended to run for re-election next year.
“I told you I was going to step down in 2012, but no, probably in 2031!” he told applauding supporters.
He said his illness had made him even more determined to be a candidate and that he had not thought of giving up the presidency “for even an instant.”
Parliamentary elections in September showed Venezuela split down the middle between Chavez supporters and opponents. A fractious opposition coalition now senses a chance to unseat the convalescing president at the ballot box next year.
Increasing television appearances along with his buoyant mood indicate Chavez is confident the chemotherapy is working.
Even so, the leader who rose from humble rural roots and built a political career on his charisma and close contact with mainly poor supporters said he was largely confined to the Miraflores palace because of the risk of a health setback.
“I’d love to come out into the street but I should not and cannot because of the risk of infection. My defences are low as a result of the chemotherapy,” Chavez said.
He is due back in Cuba soon for a second round of chemotherapy that he said is likely to cause hair-loss.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel, Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; editing by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne