Image: Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez
Granma  /  AP
Cuba's Fidel Castro, left, and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez look at Granma state newspaper Tuesday in Havana, Cuba. Chavez has had two operations in Cuba.
msnbc.com news services
updated 7/1/2011 6:39:12 AM ET 2011-07-01T10:39:12

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reacted with dismay and denial to news he is battling cancer, but vowed to push forward his self-styled revolution while he recovered.

"This is a lie, Chavez does not have cancer, I don't know why he said it but it's not true," said Luis, a worker painting a wall in a downtown Caracas plaza.

"We don't have to be afraid. Cancer is a disease that can be treated," said Javier, a waiter. Neither gave surnames.

Rumors
Supporters, who for two weeks had been condemning the cancer rumors as a smear campaign by the opposition, looked overwhelmed as they watched Chavez's grave speech.

Chavez was noticeably thinner and paler as he appeared on television Thursday night, reading a prepared statement with a serious and at times sad expression. He said he is resolved to "be victorious in this new battle that life has placed before us."

Chavez said he had two operations in Cuba, including one that removed a tumor in which there were "cancerous cells." The 56-year-old president said the surgery was performed after an initial operation nearly three weeks ago to remove a pelvic abscess.

He said he is continuing to receive treatment in Cuba but did not elaborate.

He said it was a mistake not have taken better care of his health through medical checkups.

"What a fundamental error," he said at a podium, flanked by the Venezuelan flag and a portrait of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, the namesake of his Bolivarian Revolution political movement.

"Now I wanted to speak to you from this steep hill, from which I feel that I'm coming out of another abyss," Chavez said. "I wanted to speak to you now with the sun of daybreak that I feel is shining on me. I think we've achieved it. Thank you, my God."

Expressing confidence that he will continue to get better, Chavez said: "I invite you all to continue climbing new summits together."

His appearance came after days of anxious speculation among Venezuelans about Chavez's health.

Chavez's ministers came out immediately with a joint television appearance to pledge loyalty and unity.

"There is no time for sadness, but for reflection and bravery, Vice President Elias Jaua said. "Unity is what is needed at this moment. Let's show our support for our President Chavez on the streets."

Jaua said the ministers would "deepen" Chavez's socialist reforms during his absence.

And he urged Chavez's supporters to show their solidarity in massive street rallies called to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain over the coming days.

Chavez's revelation, and the lack of any return date, is likely to further generate speculation in Venezuela about which of the president's allies could potentially take his place if necessary.  Jaua has led government events in Chavez's absence, and the leftist president's elder brother, Adan, recently stepped up his public profile by rallying supporters at a weekend prayer meeting for Chavez's health.

Venezuelan state TV showed cabinet ministers and Chavez supporters gathering at Plaza Bolivar in the city center, chanting "Chavez, our friend, the people are with you."

Fireworks could be heard in the poor west side of Caracas, where people on the street shouted: "He's alive! He's alive!"

Story: Venezuela opposition demand info on Chavez's health

Eva Golinger, a U.S. lawyer and outspoken Chavez supporter, said Venezuelans should celebrate Chavez's announcement that the cancerous cells were entirely removed.

"Comandante Chavez is recovering and is very strong!! Everything will be cured, there is no doubt. He looks strong and everything has been removed," she said on Twitter.

She pointed out that other Latin American presidents including Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo had successfully recovered from cancer.

Twitter criticism
Critics of Chavez greeted the news with a combination of glee at the president's ill health and optimism about the chances for the opposition, which has failed for over a decade to unseat him despite repeated national strikes, a botched coup and a recall referendum.

"This will lead to a transition of presidents. It's perfect!" said Freddy Herrera, 25, an accountant. "Because the revolution doesn't work, because socialism is a lie."

Chavez's detractors also flooded Twitter with snide criticism, questioning why the president did not disclose his condition despite insistence by the opposition.

"If the president and his ministers are capable of lying to us about his health, imagine the daily lies about other issues," said one Twitter user.

Under Chavez's rule, Venezuelan society has become deeply polarized and strongly insulting language between both sides is common.

The leftist leader has been in office for more than 12 years and plans to run for re-election in 2012. He did not address that issue on Thursday.

Venezuelan pollster and analyst Luis Vicente Leon said on Twitter that Chavez will likely enjoy an initial boost in his approval ratings due to public sympathy, but that "the political risks for Chavez are notably amplified" due to his condition.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Timeline: Hugo Chavez reveals he is fighting cancer

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