Hugo Chavez tells Venezuela: I'm in charge

President is in Cuba being treated for cancer; he has had surgery three times

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Hugo Chavez, the ailing President of Venezuela, rang in an interview with state television from his sick bed in Cuba on Monday, successfully dousing a new storm of speculation that his treatment for cancer had taken a turn for the worse, bringing him to the brink of death.

"I'm fulfilling my duties as head of state – but in this unique situation which I will be out of in the next few days," he declared, sounding firm. "Soon I will be back there."

Yet persuading Venezuelans that Mr Chavez remains on top of the disease may be getting increasingly difficult, and the secrecy is not helping. They know only that he has undergone surgery three times in Cuba since last June. He has spent most of the last six weeks on the island reportedly receiving radiation therapy. About the seriousness of his condition, his countrymen have been told almost nothing.

The stakes are high, not least because the country is preparing for the October presidential election. "Venezuela today is being governed via a telephone, via Twitter," Henrique Capriles, his opposition challenger complained to local television.

So far the government is not countenancing the possibility that Mr Chavez might have to abandon his bid for re-election. Nor is the man himself. "The opposition are never going to win any elections in Venezuela, ever again," the President said. Yet, shortly before departing for his current round of treatment, Mr Chavez put in place a Council of State.

The body is made up of Chavez loyalists and is headed by his Vice President, Elias Jaua. Its formation may turn out to be the first step to prepare for a transition should Mr Chavez's health force him to retire.