Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he is returning to Cuba on Tuesday to continue treatment for cancer, raising new questions about his health just weeks after he won re-election to another six-year term.
Chavez, who had claimed in July that he was cancer free, disclosed his travel plans in a letter to the National Assembly that left unclear whether he had suffered a relapse.
The 58-year-old, who has been in power since 1999 and gained international prominence as an anti-US firebrand, appeared weakened and subdued during the presidential campaign but he won a third term that extends to 2018. In the letter, Chavez said he had been zealously following a complementary treatment plan ordered by his doctors, despite the intense re-election campaign.
They recommended undergoing a special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygenation along with physiotherapy to continue to consolidate the strengthening health I have been experiencing, he said.
Chavez, who has never disclosed the type or severity of the cancer he had, underwent surgery to remove a tumour in his pelvic region last year in Cuba followed by multiple rounds of chemotherapy after the cancer returned.
The trip to Cuba for medical treatment would be Chavez's first since July when he said he was free of the disease.
Once a dominant media presence, commandeering national television and radio on a weekly basis and firing off multiple tweets, Chavez has largely dropped from sight since his re-election October 7.
Television pictures have shown him leading meetings of his cabinet at the presidential palace, but otherwise he has been a no-show even though the country is heading into important regional elections December 16.
Chavez had been expected to attend rallies in support of his former vice president, Elias Jaua, who is running for governor of the key state of Miranda against the opposition's former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles.
Where is the president? Capriles recently asked, challenging Chavez to show your face.
The president offered villas and castles during the campaign and now he has disappeared, now you don't see him anywhere, said Capriles.
Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Datanalisis polling firm, said Chavez's absence from the regional campaign was evidence that his health remains a problem.
The climate will fill up again with rumours about Chavez's illness and the regional campaign will be overshadowed, he said.