Caracas: President Hugo Chavez bid an emotional farewell laced with references to Jesus Christ and independence hero Simon Bolivar as he departed Venezuela for Cuba for urgent surgery to remove a tumour he says is probably malignant.
Clasping the hand of his youngest daughter, Chavez addressed allies of his socialist political movement and troops standing at attention at the Miraflores presidential palace.
"I say this from my gut: With cancer or without cancer ... come rain, thunder or lightning ... nobody can avoid a great patriotic victory October 7," the president said, referring to the date of Venezuela's presidential election. "Long live Chavez!"
The socialist president, who is seeking a fourth term, referenced Bolivar and Christ's burdens to describe his battle with cancer.
"Our (founding) father Simon Bolivar once said, 'I am a man of troubles.' I say as a son of Bolivar, I too am a man of troubles. We are a people of troubles," Chavez said.
"Let the troubles come and add like the cross of Christ to the definitive liberation of the country. With the cross of Christ, one must sometimes bear pain as a spur to love. It is fuel for love."
Chavez's black SUV left the palace and rolled slowly through the capital yesterday, with red-shirted bodyguards clinging to the running boards. His head and shoulders sticking out of the sunroof, the firebrand president waved to onlookers lining the avenues and people flying Venezuelan flags from rooftops.
A motorcade of white vans and police vehicles with flashing lights followed Chavez to the airport, where he shook hands with officials and spoke briefly before taking off for Cuba in the presidential plane.
Several hours later, Chavez contacted Venezuelan state television by telephone, saying he had arrived in Cuba and had been greeted by Raul Castro at the airport.
"I have faith that everything will go well," Chavez said. The president said he planned to meet with doctors on Saturday, and undergo a series of medical tests.
Chavez, 57, is turning to the same Cuban doctors who extracted a baseball-size cancerous tumour from his pelvic region last summer. This time, the growth is smaller, about an inch (two centimetres) in diametre.
Cuba and Venezuela are staunch allies, and Chavez enjoys a warm relationship with former leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul.