Months after declaring himself cancer-free, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he would undergo more surgery in Cuba to remove a new lesion that he said is likely cancerous.
The news raised new questions about Chavez’s health as the firebrand leftist leader, seeking re-election, faces a serious challenge from a unified opposition candidate in an October vote.
Chavez, 57, who has been in power since 1999, said on Tuesday that the lesion was found during a medical checkup over the weekend in Cuba, where he first underwent cancer surgery on his pelvic area in June last year.
“It is a small lesion of nearly 2 centimeters in diameter, very clearly visible,” Chavez said on state-run television, adding that it was “in the same area where a tumor was removed nearly a year ago.”
“There will have to be a new operation to extract it and have it examined to see if it’s malignant or not,” he said.
“No one needs to get upset, and no one ought to start celebrating: because independent of what my personal fate may be, there is a driving force behind this revolution and nobody, nothing is going to stop it,” Chavez said, almost paraphrasing words of his close ally, former Cuban president Fidel Castro.
Chavez’s statement came after rumors about his ill health had spread on social networking sites.
Last year his government was slow to report on his illness, but on Tuesday the news tumbled out quickly, as Chavez acknowledged that chances that the new lesion were cancerous were “high.”
Chavez later said he would undergo the new surgery in Havana. Cuba is Venezuela’s staunchest ally.
“I am not racing ... tomorrow I will get things in order ... getting ready for the weekend,” Chavez told official VTV television by telephone, adding that he would be operated on by the same doctors who treated him in June.
“Everything is set up,” Chavez said. “Over there [in Cuba], there is more security for this kind of operation.”
Many in Venezuela were stunned that Chavez was not operated on in his own country and that last year he kept the details of his illness secret while insisting he was fit to seek yet another term in office.
On Tuesday, Chavez said the chances that the new lesion was malignant “exist and are high. [But] we have to wait until it is removed” to assess it.
“If it is malignant, I would be going into a different phase ... certainly localized radiation therapy,” Chavez said.
“That would slow me down, of course,” he added, apparently referring to the race ahead of the Oct. 7 election.
However, Chavez said the upcoming surgery would be less complicated than the one he underwent in June.
He has said he was declared cancer-free after that surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy, but he never said what cancer he had.
Venezuelan officials said only that the tumor was removed from his pelvic area, leading some to speculate that he was suffering from colon cancer.
Chavez is facing a strong election challenge from Henrique Capriles, who was chosen as the sole opposition candidate in a heavily attended presidential primary earlier this month.
Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, defeated five other candidates in the first-ever primary by the traditionally fractured opposition.
The opposition has this time joined forces in an effort to defeat Chavez, who has been criticized for jailing political opponents and restricting media opposition.