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Originally published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 8:52 AM

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Venezuela's Chavez assures backers: 'I will live!'

For someone who's ill, President Hugo Chavez didn't show it Thursday as he launched into full-blown campaign mode on his last day in Venezuela before flying to Cuba for cancer surgery.

Associated Press

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CARACAS, Venezuela —

For someone who's ill, President Hugo Chavez didn't show it Thursday as he launched into full-blown campaign mode on his last day in Venezuela before flying to Cuba for cancer surgery.

Chavez, who is running for re-election this year, spoke for more than four hours on a folksy, upbeat broadcast, pausing only so supporters could send greetings, messages of encouragement and reports on home construction and new soy plantations from around the country.

At one point, an apple-cheeked boy clad in the red of Chavez's socialist political movement appeared via a video feed from the western city of Maracaibo and recited a poem about the president's illness and how he will overcome it.

Chavez, 57, invoked the revolutionary language of both Cuba and his own country, and vowed to see the campaign through even after revelations of his cancer's comeback cast his health and stamina in doubt.

"I will live! I will live!" cried a bespectacled Chavez, pounding the table in a hall in the Miraflores government palace during the live broadcast.

The president took over the national airwaves hours after lawmakers granted him permission to absent himself from the country while he has a potentially cancerous tumor surgically removed, a formality required by the constitution.

He said he would leave Friday and undergo surgery early next week to remove the growth, described as about an inch (2 centimeters) in diameter located in the same area where Chavez had a baseball-size malignant tumor taken out last year.

The constitution says the vice president may take the president's place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, and the National Assembly may extend that for 90 days more.

Opposition politicians called for Chavez to put his No. 2 in charge while he's recovering in Cuba, which could take weeks if he stays for radiation therapy like he did last summer.

"We can't have what happened last year, the president purporting to govern from Cuba," said Alfonso Marquina, a lawmaker and spokesman for the opposition bloc in the National Assembly. "Because in the absence of the president, the government is the vice president."

But Chavez is not naming a substitute and plans to continue making decisions and signing decrees from abroad. Instead he went on the attack Thursday with an animated, near-uninterrupted speech in which he warned that the opposition will resort to dirty tricks by starting rumors about divisions within the military to destabilize his government while he undergoes surgery.

He also railed against the "unpatriotic bourgeoisie" and said social initiatives such as housing for the poor will disappear if his opponent, Henry Capriles, wins Oct. 7.

"A capitalist state is never going to subsidize anything," Chavez said, his hands carving the air in front of him as he spoke.

Comfortably seated at the head of a wooden conference table and flanked by Cabinet ministers, a beaming Chavez told jokes, broke into song, bantered and urged glum-faced supporters to cheer up.

"We are going to win by a knockout," he said.

Chavez spoke again at a political rally held later in the evening in a Caracas theater. Images broadcast on local television showed Chavez wading through the packed auditorium, shaking hands and stopping to kiss a baby swaddled in the red, blue and yellow of Venezuela's flag.

"I have faith the 'comandante' is going to be well," said Raquel Ramirez, an unemployed 29-year-old woman clutching a rosary and holy cross as she prayed outside the theater. "His people need him."

Speaking to the crowd, Chavez thanked them for their well-wishing and recalled how he recently dreamed about an encounter with Jesus Christ.

"He told me, 'Chavez, get up, it's not time to die'," Chavez recalled.

The president said he's "preparing to face the worst."

Referring to the tumor, he said: "The possibility that it's malignant is greater than it not being (malignant)."

The rally ended with Chavez singing folk songs alongside musicians from Venezuela's vast central plains, the socialist leader's birthplace. He wrapped his arm around his eldest daughter, Rosa, as he sang about the South American nation's battle for independence from Spain.

Chavez said earlier this week the same doctors who removed a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region in June would be operating on him. The firebrand president had already undergone chemotherapy last year, and in October declared himself "free of illness."

In a letter sent to the National Assembly requesting permission to travel, Chavez described the need for surgery as "urgent."

"I know the news of this new surgery has caused concern among the vast majority of my countrymen. I say it from the heart: I'm certain that we will win this battle," Chavez wrote in the letter. "I will return as I always return: With more energy, more enthusiasm, more happiness."

Chavez has denied rumors the cancer had spread aggressively, but also said his doctors don't know if the new lesion is malignant.

"I have faith that the 'comandante' is going to be OK. His people need him, and good people should live," said Raquel Ramirez, an unemployed 29-year-old who held a string of beads with a cross attached as she prayed for his health near a theater where a musical homage to Chavez was planned for later.

Some hoped that the election, not disease, will force him from office.

"Cancer is a terrible sickness that shouldn't be wished on anybody," said Jose Hernandez, a 48-year-old businessman who backed Chavez in 1998 but has grown disenchanted with Venezuela's swing toward socialism. "I hope he recovers, but I would be a hypocrite if I didn't say I hope he lives to pay for the damage he has caused."

"I hoped for a lot from him, but he convinced me he wants a nation of poor people where everyone depends on the government," Hernandez said.

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Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

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