Clutching a crucifix and holding back tears, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez on Monday appeared live on television for the first time in 17 days, saying he was counting on Christ for help as he returns to Cuba for more cancer treatment.
Addressing the nation on television from the Miraflores presidential palace, Chavez said he'll leave Venezuela Monday for a sixth trip to the Castro brothers’ island this year. Earlier the National Assembly approved his request to be absent from the country for more than five days.
We're in the final stretch of this radiation therapy, Chavez said in the nationwide broadcast. These are not easy days, but we are warriors ready to confront adversity. With this infinite faith I depart and will return in a few days to continue my recuperation.
Since announcing in February he would require a third operation to remove a second tumour from his pelvic area, Chavez has spent more time in Cuba than Venezuela, while insisting he'll recover in time to campaign in an October election for six more years in office. His absences have sparked a rally in Venezuelan bonds on speculation his illness will lead to a change in government and policies that have stoked inflation and driven away investment.
During Monday’s broadcast, filmed in front of a group of ministers and officials, Chavez signed a new labour law. Using decree powers granted by Venezuela's National Assembly, where the government has a majority, Chavez signed the biggest labour law reform since he took power in 1999.
Changes include an extension of maternity leave to six months, a four-hour reduction in the work week to 40 hours, and more severance benefits.
It's a fair, liberating law, said Chavez.
Already reeling from 13 years of an aggressive state policy against private business, some small companies fear the labour changes could put them out of business.
Analysts say the state, whose workforce has ballooned due to nationalizations across large swathes of the economy, will face a much larger bill to comply with the reforms. And opposition leader Capriles said at the weekend Chavez's reforms were clearly an electoral ploy and did not tackle Venezuelans' main concern: unemployment.
Chávez also announced that Venezuela will withdraw from the sadly famous Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and called for the State Committee to evaluate this issue.
As Head of State I will firstly request the State Council the analysis and the recommendation for the immediate withdrawal from the sadly famous IACHR, Chávez stated during a nationwide transmission.
It's enough. How much longer are we going to have this Damocles sword? he added.
It's a mechanism that the United States uses against us, the president said referring to the Organization of American States (OAS).
Speaking about his health as he finished his speech, Chavez said he hoped to be playing baseball in a few weeks and walking the streets of Venezuela. As he made his customary farewell salute, his voice cracked and as the cameras panned away he looked down and appeared to be holding back tears.
Since the operation on Feb. 26, the former tank commander has shuttled back and forth between Cuba and Venezuela as he receives radiation treatment. He had said he would complete his fifth and last session of radiation treatment during his previous trip to Cuba.
As he bade farewell, Chavez held up a crucifix, saying it was the same one he had carried with him when he was removed from power and sent to an island off the Venezuelan coast after taking part in a 2002 failed coup.
It's the same one I had when I thought I was going to die but a miracle occurred, Chavez said. ”I'm sure that our Christ will repeat this miracle”.