Caracas, Feb 25: President Hugo Chavez bid an emotional farewell laced with references to Jesus Christ and independence hero Simon Bolivar as he departed Venezuela on Friday for Cuba for urgent surgery to remove a tumor he says is probably malignant.
Clasping the hand of his youngest daughter, Chavez addressed allies of his socialist political movement and troops standing at attention at the Miraflores presidential palace.
"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, referring to the date of Venezuela's presidential election.
"Long live Chavez!" he cried.
The socialist president, who is seeking a fourth term, referenced Bolivar and Christ's burdens to describe his battle with cancer.
"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's black SUV left the palace and rolled slowly through the capital, with red-shirted bodyguards clinging to the running boards. His head and shoulders sticking out of the sunroof, the firebrand president waved to onlookers lining the avenues and people flying Venezuelan flags from rooftops.
A motorcade of white vans and police vehicles with flashing lights followed Chavez to the airport, where he shook hands with officials and spoke briefly before taking off for Cuba in the presidential plane.
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, President Raul Castro.
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 US, 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."
Latin America's top cancer doctor, Paulo Hoff, who heads the cancer center at Sao Paulo's Sirio-Libanes hospital, considered the region's best, would not talk specifically about Chavez's case. But he did say that a cancerous tumor in the pelvic region would be mainly limited to four types: prostate, rectal, bladder and sarcoma, the latter being a rare and deadly form of tumor.
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."
Luis Vicente Leon, director of local polling firm Datanalisis, said Chavez's most important political concern is convincing people that he's healthy.
"It is a different scenario if in the mind of voters an idea remains that the president is ill, with his near future compromised," Leon said.
As Chavez's motorcade traveled through the streets, hundreds of supporters covered his SUV with flowers and even a portrait of Jesus that read: "I will heal you. Forward, commander!" At one point Chavez wiped his eyes and tossed the handkerchief to the crowd, which surged forward seeking to touch him. Some women holding portraits of the president yelled "We love you Chavez!" as the caravan passed.
"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.