President Hugo Chavez's fight against cancer has taken another surprising turn, with Venezuela's leftist leader announcing plans to fly back to Cuba today to begin chemotherapy.
Chavez has kept a close lid on information about his health problems over the past month but has made headlines with unexpected announcements and appearances.
The latest came yesterday after Chavez met with Peruvian President-elect Ollanta Humala, then told reporters he was asking permission from lawmakers to return to Havana. That's where he spent much of June undergoing surgeries to remove an abscess and a cancerous tumor in his pelvic region before making a surprise return home July 4.
"This second phase will begin in the next days with the application of chemotherapy, scientifically planned, in detail," Chavez said on the steps of the presidential palace. "I am sure, I repeat, that the second stage will contribute to following the path to the recuperation of my health."
It was not clear how long Chavez planned to remain in Cuba.
Chavez said he was sending a letter to the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, Fernando Soto Rojas, to request immediate "legislative authorization" for his trip as required by the constitution.
The National Assembly called a special session for this morning to take up the president's request, said legislator Alfonso Marquina, an opposition leader.
Chavez's allies hold a majority of seats in the assembly.
Marquina told The Associated Press that opposition lawmakers intended to vote in favor of granting the president a "temporary absence." He said they also hoped to receive "a medical report that dispels doubts for all Venezuelans about what the president's true state of health is."
Marquina said he and other opposition politicians think Vice President Elias Jaua should temporarily assume Chavez's duties while the president is away receiving treatment.
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 from his pelvic region. He has said the tumor was the size of a baseball, but has not specified where it was located or said what kind of cancer was involved.
He received a hero's welcome from supporters upon his return and has since kept up near daily public appearances. He's rallied crowds from the presidential palace and in a downtown plaza, presided at Cabinet meetings, addressed troops and generally sought to reassure Venezuelans that he is firmly in control in spite of his illness.
Yet he has also reminded his audiences of the challenges he faces, frequently saying he is fighting for his life and is under doctors' orders to not overexert himself.
He acknowledged on Wednesday for the first time that he expected to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment, which he said would "armor the body against new malignant cells."
Chavez spent much of June in Cuba without revealing much about his medical state. On June 30, he announced on television that doctors had removed the tumor in the second of two surgeries.
During the past two weeks, Chavez's Twitter account has posted a flurry of messages commenting on everything from the Venezuelan soccer team's performance to a concert led by Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He's also appeared on television leading Cabinet meetings and attending Mass.
Chavez, who is up for re-election next year, has sought to project confidence while often telling supporters: "We will live!"
His revelation of his trip to Cuba came after reports from Brazil said the Venezuelan leader could undergo his next round of treatment at the Sirio-Libanes Hospital in Sao Paulo, which is considered one of the best hospitals in South America.
As they began their meeting at the presidential palace, Humala told Chavez: "Count on our prayers."
"You still have to fulfill a mission with your people as president," Humala said.