CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned home Friday nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba, saying he is praying for life and is confident he will survive and triumph in his re-election bid.
After stepping off the plane, Chavez smiled and waved but also spoke soberly about the path ahead in his struggle against cancer. At times, his expression turned serious.
"I lift up a prayer... in this battle for life," Chavez said in a televised speech on the tarmac. "I'm going to live. We're going to live, and we're going to keep on overcoming. And in that commitment I will give everything, all the spiritual and physical strength that fits in my heart."
Then, he added: "Or rather, that doesn't fit. ... It's a force much bigger than the Caribbean."
Chavez came home as many Venezuelans are wondering about his long-term prospects and about how his health will evolve ahead of the country's Oct. 7 presidential election. Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, such as the type of cancer, spurring speculation about how his cancer might affect the country's political landscape.
His close allies have assured Venezuelans that there is no Plan B and that Chavez is the only leader of his movement heading into the elections. Chavez was greeted by his vice president and Cabinet ministers, and soldiers standing at attention.
He stepped down the stairs from the plane hand-in-hand with his mother and one of his daughters. He walked gingerly and seemed less energetic than in previous appearances.
At times, Chavez's mother and another of his daughters seemed on the verge of tears. His mother raised a hand to his head to bless him.
Chavez, whose eyes appeared puffy, said he had prayed with his family in the morning before leaving Cuba.
"This new return comes converted into a prayer, a song, a commitment, a prayer to God," Chavez said. "A new prayer of hope in this battle that it's been up to us to fight."
Chavez vowed to win re-election and criticized his political opponents, saying they represent "the agenda of the right."
He accused opposition-aligned Venezuelan news media of trying to provoke fear and uncertainty in the country. "I call on the country to stay calm," he said.
Chavez also said the country's intelligence agencies should be "very attentive to the movements of these groups of the most extremely radical and irrational right." He didn't elaborate on his concerns.
The 57-year-old leader is seeking another six-year term in the October presidential vote. His rival, 39-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, has criticized Chavez's handling of his cancer, saying that if he were president his health would "be a matter of public knowledge."
Before Chavez's return, his last appearance on Venezuelan television had came Monday night in a video showing him walking with two of his daughters in a garden in Havana. Chavez appeared in prerecorded video footage during his stay in Cuba, but Friday was the first time state television showed live video of him since he left for Havana on Feb. 24.
The president has said his Feb. 26 surgery in Cuba removed a tumor from the same location in the pelvic region where another tumor was removed in June.
After he was diagnosed with cancer last year, Chavez underwent an initial surgery in June that removed a tumor the size of a baseball.
He then had four rounds of chemotherapy and said tests showed no signs of any cancerous cells. But last month, he announced he was returning to Cuba for surgery to have a lesion removed.
Chavez has described the most recent tumor as measuring about 2 centimeters (0.8 inches). He has declined to identify the precise location where the tumors appeared.
He next plans to undergo radiation therapy, although it's unclear how soon that will begin.
"I feel very recovered," Chavez said at the airport. He said he had regained weight and "I'm stepping up the rhythm little by little again."
He also said that as his mentor Fidel Castro saw him off at the airport in Havana, Castro told him: "Chavez, I know you. Tell your people that you have to be disciplined. They're going to understand, and nobody should think that everything has passed already."
"No," Chavez added, "We're overcoming, but we should continue being rigorously disciplined."
Chavez invited supporters to the presidential palace on Saturday, saying he would address them.
The president sought to keep up with government business while in Cuba. Last weekend, his aides were in Havana for a televised meeting where Chavez reviewed projects ranging from subway expansion work to public housing complexes.
Chavez said he's been paying close attention to events in the country. "I haven't stopped being attentive one single day, even on the most difficult ones," he said.
As he got into a Mercedes to leave the airport, his aides crowed around and chanted: "Chavez, we love you!"
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda and AP photographer Fernando Llano in Caracas contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap