CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez delegated some of his duties to his vice president and finance minister on Saturday as he prepared to fly to Cuba to start chemotherapy and a new stage of cancer treatment.
Chavez had refused opposition demands that he temporarily cede power to Vice President Elias Jaua while undergoing chemotherapy in Havana. But shortly after a legislative vote approving his trip, Chavez announced at a televised Cabinet meeting that he would hand off some responsibilities.
“Tomorrow I begin chemotherapy treatment, and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got,” Chavez said in a televised speech. He said the treatment would ensure cancer cells have not spread or reappeared since he underwent surgery last month to remove a tumor.
After thorough medical checks, “no malignant cell has been detected in any other part of my body,” Chavez said to the applause of aides and allies at the presidential palace. He added, “There is always the risk of some cells escaping or tending to reproduce, and therefore there’s a need to attack hard through chemotherapy.”
Chavez earlier announced that his vice president would oversee budget transfers to government ministries, presidential commissions, any expropriations of businesses and other budget-related responsibilities. Planning and Finance Minister Jorge Giordani would deal with matters including budget shortfalls and certain tax exemptions.
Chavez denied that he was in any way ceding his functions as president.
But he said that if his physical capacities were diminished, “I would be the first in doing what the constitution says” in delegating functions to the vice president.
He spoke at length in two televised appearances, and in a speech to party leaders called for them to defeat any internal divisions that might exist. “Unity, unity, unity,” Chavez said.
He said his decision to delegate some of his duties was a result of “deep reflection” as he has fought cancer. He said he planned to travel to Cuba later Saturday and would return soon but didn’t specify how long he would be away.
The 56-year-old’s cancer diagnosis has thrown uncertainty into Venezuela’s political landscape. Chavez, who has held dominant power during more than 12 years in office, has said he’s confident he will rebound but has also admitted a long road to recovery remains.
Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor, which he has said was the size of a baseball. He hasn’t said what type of cancer he was diagnosed with nor specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.
Chavez announced his decision on delegating some duties shortly after the National Assembly approved his request to travel to Cuba.
The unanimous vote followed a passionate debate in which opposition politicians said they supported the president’s right to receive treatment but disputed his plan to remain in charge while in Havana. Opposition lawmakers also demanded more information about his illness.
As the debate was under way, Chavez appeared on television and interjected himself into the debate. While he appeared on a split screen with the lawmakers’ listening, he dismissed his opponents’ arguments as “bordering on ridiculousness.”
“I will come back much better than I am right now,” Chavez said.
Opposition lawmakers, who hold a minority of seats in the National Assembly, said they believed that Chavez’s request constituted a “temporary absence” and that the president owed the country a more detailed explanation of how serious his illness is.
“Let him go to Cuba,” opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said during the debate. “But we also demand compliance with the constitution ... so that he doesn’t continue governing from Havana, Cuba.”
Under Venezuela’s constitution, the vice president may take the president’s place during temporary absences of up to 90 days, which the National Assembly may extend for 90 days more for a total of about six months.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Cilia Flores disputed the opposition’s argument, saying that the National Assembly was simply granting Chavez permission to be away for more than five days and that he would remain in charge. “The constitution is explicit,” she said.
Chavez’s congressional allies clapped and chanted: “Onward commander!”
The National Assembly convened the special session a day after Chavez announced his plan to fly back to Cuba, where he spent much of June undergoing surgeries to remove an abscess and the tumor. Chavez has been in Caracas since he made a surprise return from Cuba on July 4.
“Undoubtedly, the opposition will see his return to Cuba as a further sign of frailty,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. “Among his supporters, it might have the opposite outcome, serving to rally support and close ranks.
“His continued or repeated absence could, however, generate fissures across the entire political spectrum,” Tinker Salas said. “Long-term, his absence on the national and international stage will have an impact and generates a political vacuum that the opposition and those within his own ranks will have a difficult time filling.”
Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has launched sweeping socialist-inspired changes, built alliances with Latin America’s leftist leaders and frequently clashed with the U.S. government, although Venezuela still relies on income from oil sales to the United States, which remains its top client.
The leftist leader is up for re-election in late 2012. During his nearly two-week stay in Caracas, Chavez rallied supporters, addressed troops and generally sought to reassure Venezuelans that he was firmly in control in spite of his illness.
He also reminded Venezuelans of the challenges he faces, often saying he is fighting for his life and is under doctors’ orders to not overexert himself.
In one of several messages posted on his Twitter account Saturday, Chavez said: “I’m fighting like never before, and I promise you I will live and we will be victorious!”
Chavez acknowledged on Wednesday for the first time that he expected to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
Chemotherapy is used to treat any tumor that has spread or to kill stray cancerous cells that might seed a new tumor.
“He’s essentially probably getting these treatments in the hopes of preventing any recurrence of the disease,” said Dr. Michael Pishvaian, a cancer specialist at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center who was not involved in the Venezuelan leader’s treatment. “The idea is to try to eradicate any microscopic disease that might be present.”
Chavez said Friday that he still had a lot to live for.
“I have faith in God, in medical science, and in our Cuban, Venezuelan doctors ... and lastly in myself and this will to live — to live for our people, to live for my daughters, to live for my grandchildren,” Chavez said. “To live for myself also. Why not?”
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap