President Hugo Chávez adamantly pounded his hand on a table during a live broadcast from a palace in Venezuela where he cried "I will live! I will live!," in a campaign mode speech, a night before his scheduled trip to Cuba for cancer surgery that has cast his health in doubt.
Chávez, who is running for -relection this year, is going full steam ahead with his campaign, 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 Chávez'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.
Chávez, 57, invoked the revolutionary language of both Cuba and his own country, and vowed to see the campaign through despite his newest health revelations.
I have faith that the 'comandante' is going to be OK. His people need him, and good people should live.
- Raquel Ramirez, an unemployed 29-year-old Chávez Supporter
"I will live! I will live!" cried a bespectacled Chávez, 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 Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez 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," Chávez 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 Chávez told jokes, broke into song, bantered and urged glum-faced supporters to cheer up.
"We are going to win by a knockout," he said.
Chávez spoke again at a political rally held later in the evening in a Caracas theater. Images broadcast on local television showed Chávez 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, Chávez thanked them for their well-wishing and recalled how he recently dreamed about an encounter with Jesus Christ.
"He told me, 'Chávez, get up, it's not time to die'," Chávez 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 Chávez 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.
Chávez 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, Chávez 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," Chávez wrote in the letter. "I will return as I always return: With more energy, more enthusiasm, more happiness."
Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Hernández, a 48-year-old businessman who backed Chávez 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," Hernández said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.