Venezuela's Chavez says he was treated for cancer
The announcement, which confirmed rumors swirling for nearly three weeks, threw the South American OPEC nation's politics into confusion ahead of a 2012 presidential election.
Looking grave and emotional in his speech, Chavez gave no indication when he would return to Venezuela and did not name a temporary substitute to lead the country of 29 million people.
"They confirmed the existence of a tumorous abscess, with the presence of cancerous cells, which required another operation to extract the tumor completely," he said in his first address to the nation since surgery in Havana on June 10.
Chavez said he was on the road to "full recovery."
"I deeply appreciate the demonstrations of solidarity by Venezuelans and other brotherly people," he added, standing at a lectern by a Venezuelan flag and a painting of his hero, South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Analysts say a prolonged absence could prompt infighting among his allies -- none of whom possess Chavez's charisma or national appeal -- and possibly bring calls for an early election by opposition parties gearing up for a 2012 poll.
"From the president's speech, it is impossible to deduce if he will or will not be in a physical state and the right mood to go into the 2012 campaign," local analyst Luis-Vicente Leon said.
Until Thursday, the official line had been that he was recovering well from an operation to remove a pelvic abscess and would return soon.
MINISTERS PLEDGE UNITY
Inheriting former Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro's mantle as Washington's main irritant in Latin America, Chavez has become one of the world's most well known leaders during his 12 years in power.
Comparing his health problem to a previous dark moment for Chavez -- a short-lived 2002 coup against -- the president promised he would be back in typically grandiose language.
"I want to talk to you about the rising sun, I think that we have emerged," he said.
Chavez supporters reacted to his speech with disbelief but vows of solidarity.
"My comandante doesn't have cancer. It can't be true. He is the best president we have had, a strong man. He is not ill," said Santiago Valledare, a driver watching the speech and saluting the screen on a TV in a Caracas bar.
Chavez's ministers gave a joint appearance minutes after his speech ended, pledging to deepen his wide-reaching socialist reforms even in his absence and saying the government would remain united.
"This is not the time to go backward, it's time to advance," Vice-President Elias Jaua said.
Chavez's appearance followed the release of a video on Wednesday of him walking and chatting with Castro, his friend and mentor.
"For now and forever we will live and we will conquer. Until my return," Chavez said, ending his speech.
His government has canceled a July 5-6 summit coinciding with Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence. That was a heavy blow for supporters who wanted the charismatic but authoritarian president -- who loves to grandstand at such big events -- back home in time for the national party.
"This development may open a period of unprecedented social and political uncertainty in Venezuela," Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said in a note to clients.
Under the constitution, vice-president Jaua would replace Chavez if he were incapacitated.