CARACAS, Venezuela >> President Hugo Chavez arrived in Cuba for urgent cancer surgery following an emotional departure from Venezuela in which he vowed to win October’s election despite his illness.
Photos released by the Venezuelan government and brief video aired on state television showed the socialist leader being greeted at the Havana airport by Cuban President Raul Castro. Chavez said he planned to meet with Cuban doctors for medical tests on today.
"I have faith that everything will go well," Chavez told Venezuelan state television by telephone late Friday. He said he brought with him a box of books to read to pass the time including the Spanish-language version of "TNT: The Power Within You," a self-help book by Claude Bristol and Harold Sherman. The book’s subtitle reads: "How to release the forces inside you & get what you want!"
"It’s a book about the power of will," Chavez said. "It helped me a lot."
Before departing for Havana, Chavez addressed allies and soldiers in a speech filled with references to Jesus Christ and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Our (founding) father Simon Bolivar once said, ‘I am a man of troubles.’ I say as a son of Bolivar, I too am a man of troubles. We are a people of troubles," Chavez said. "Let the troubles come and add like the cross of Christ to the definitive liberation of the country. With the cross of Christ, one must sometimes bear pain as a spur to love. It is fuel for love."
Chavez, who is seeking his fourth term as president, has said the tumor that doctors will try to remove is probably malignant.
"I say this from my gut: With cancer or without cancer … come rain, thunder or lightning … nobody can avoid a great patriotic victory Oct. 7," the president said. "Long live Chavez!"
Chavez, 57, is turning to the same Cuban doctors who extracted a baseball-size cancerous tumor from his pelvic region last summer. This time, the growth is smaller, about an inch (two centimeters) in diameter.
Cuba and Venezuela are staunch allies, and Chavez enjoys a warm relationship with former leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.
The Venezuelan president has not disclosed the precise location of either tumor, nor said what kind of cancer he had, but described next week’s surgery as urgent.
Cuban health care is generally considered good, but oncology experts not involved with Chavez’s care say he could be taking a risk by skipping more respected facilities in the United States, Europe or Brazil — which has Latin America’s most advanced cancer centers with specialized radiation equipment.
"If you have a ‘common’ cancer, that of the breast, colon or lung … then it’s going to be easy to find standards of care that are the same in the U.S., Brazil or Cuba," said Dr. Julian Molina, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "The problem comes when you have a tumor that’s not one of the common ones, and that’s what most of us suspect Chavez has."
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a retired army lieutenant who accompanied Chavez in his failed 1992 coup, said Friday that the Venezuelan opposition should be the most worried about the president’s survival.
"The people in the street will not retreat a single millimeter, not a single millimeter, from what has been accomplished in these 13 years" since Chavez took office, Cabello said.
Chavez allies have accused their political foes of hoping the president will die, opening a door for the opposition to win the Oct. 7 vote.
Rival candidate Henrique Capriles has rejected such allegations and said he wishes for a Chavez recovery so Capriles can triumph "fair and square."
As Chavez’s motorcade traveled through the streets of Caracas, hundreds of supporters covered his SUV with flowers and even a portrait of Jesus that read: "I will heal you. Forward, commander!"
"This goodbye should encourage him. I hope he returns and knows we love him," said Lucia Cabeza, an unemployed 24-year-old.
For others, it was just the latest spectacle surrounding a man with a confirmed flair for the theatric. He was given a similar send-off last summer when he flew to Cuba for treatment.
"It was a terrible exaggeration. They took him here, they took him there," said Fatima Abreu, a 47-year food vendor. "It’s not the first time he’s leaving, nor the first time he’s having surgery. Even for his own health, he should be taking it easy."
"Chavez has been doing this for 13 years," added Margarita de Rodriguez, a 55-year-old homemaker. "Recently they celebrated the 4th of February, the coup that failed, and now they’re making a circus of his illness. They always do everything thinking about the elections."
Chavez plans to continue governing from Cuba instead of delegating authority temporarily to Vice President Elias Jaua. He has not said when he might return to Venezuela.