La Fria: Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez declared himself cancer-free on Thursday, four months after surgery to remove a malignant tumor that shook the South American nation ahead of a 2012 presidential vote.
"I am free of illness," Chavez, 57, said in an address to Venezuelans after touching down from Cuba in a western state to make a pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine.
Despite the ebullient socialist's declarations, doctors say it is impossible for a cancer patient to be considered out of danger until at least two years after treatment has finished.
Since taking power in 1999, Hugo Chavez has transformed Venezuela with sweeping nationalizations.
"His assertion of being cancer free is overly optimistic at this point. No matter what kind of cancer he was treated for, it's just too early to tell," said a US-based cancer expert, who asked not to be named.
Dressed in green military uniform and looking overjoyed, Chavez said the tests he underwent in Cuba this week had shown there were no malignant cells in his body following four cycles of chemotherapy after the June 20 operation in Havana.
"A vital stage has concluded. Everything went perfectly. I got top marks, 20 out of 20," he said. "The new Chavez is back ... We will live and we will continue living."
Since taking power in 1999, Chavez has transformed Venezuela with sweeping nationalizations, huge injections of cash into slum health clinics and other social projects. He projects a tough-talking leadership style, making constant jibes at Washington.
Adored by supporters in poor areas, he is viewed as a clownish but dangerous dictator by foes who say Chavez wants to install an unwanted Cuban-style communism in Venezuela.
Chavez has not given precise details of his cancer, but the surgery was in his abdomen region. There has been intense speculation his condition is worse than he has let on, with one doctor who has treated him in the past quoted this week as saying he only had two years maximum to live.
He is the latest in a group of fellow Latin American leaders who have undergone cancer treatment and also declared a clean bill of health just months after treatment.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff won a 2010 election after chemotherapy while Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was diagnosed last year with a lymphoma that he said was in remission four months later.
Touching down at La Fria airport, the ever-theatrical Chavez hugged smiling ministers and warmly greeted supporters, singing with some and slapping the backs of others.
After a speech carried on all Venezuelan TV and radio stations, he set off driving through the hills -- waving at supporters from an open-topped vehicle -- to the Christ of La Grita shrine where Chavez said he had to fulfill a vow.
"I am more and more Christian. Socialism is the way of Christ. Love, social justice, that is Christ," said Chavez, who has mixed communism, Catholicism and veneration of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar during a remarkable rule.
Exuding confidence, Chavez pledged to win next year's election when he will face an opposition coalition candidate to be chosen at a February primary.
Chavez has benefited from a sympathy bounce taking him to an approval rating near 60 per cent. But analysts say that may fall if his health deteriorates again and he is seen as unfit to run a re-election campaign or rule for another six years.
"It will be easier for a donkey to pass through the eye of a needle than for the opposition to win the elections," Chavez said in an idiosyncratic use of a saying in the Bible.
Famous for swilling coffee, sleeping just a few hours and exhausting aides with his round-the-clock, high-energy style, Chavez said it was time to tone down his lifestyle.
"I have decided, and it is necessary, to change radically my habits to preserve my health and accompany you in the new fatherland."
His return will quell, at least for now, the maneuvering local media say is taking place among his allies over possible succession. Most analysts think "Chavismo" would falter after Chavez, with no obvious figure ready to take over should he leave office due to sickness.
Karen Hooper, who analyzes Latin America for political risk consultancy Stratfor, was skeptical over Chavez's declarations.
"This doesn't mean anything concrete. No one accurately declares themselves free of cancer after just a few months. This is political theater," she said.
"His actual condition remains a state secret."
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