CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez bid an emotional farewell laced with references to Jesus Christ and independence hero Simon Bolivar Friday as he departed Venezuela 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, refering to the date of Venezuela's presidential elections.
"Long live Chavez!" he cried.
The socialist president, who is seeking re-election, spoke of the tribulations of Bolivar and the burdens borne by Christ.
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.
The president has not disclosed the precise location of either tumor, nor said what kind of cancer he had.
Chavez's black SUV then 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 waving Venezuelan flags from rooftops.
A motorcade of white vans and police vehicles with flashing lights escorted him along the highway to the airport.
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."
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.
Buses and cars fitted with red balloons and carrying Chavez supporters clogged streets in central Caracas early Friday on their way to the presidential palace, honking horns and blaring music from loudspeakers in the back of pickup trucks.
Government offices organized morning masses to pray for his health.
"We know and are sure that he will return strengthened, from a spiritual, human and physical point of view," Food Minister Carlos Osorio told state television.
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.
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi in Caracas and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.