Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday he is returning to Cuba to continue treatment for cancer, raising new questions about his health just weeks after he won re-election to a new six-year term.
Chavez, who had said 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-American firebrand, appeared weak and subdued during the presidential campaign but won a third term that extends to 2018.
That came as a massive relief in his closest ally, Cuba, the Americas' only one-party Communist nation. The crippled Cuban economy depends heavily on Venezuelan cooperation money and cut-rate oil.
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 tumor in his pelvic region last year in Cuba. This was 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 on 7 October.
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 16 December.
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.
After his election, Chavez promoted foreign minister Nicolas Maduro to the vice presidency, a position that would put him in line to succeed if the president were to step down or die in office.
The charismatic Chavez is Latin America's highest-profile leftist leader.
The ex-paratrooper has expressed staunchly anti-US rhetoric while building a network of allies across Latin America funded with his country's oil wealth — from Nicaragua to Cuba to Ecuador and Bolivia.
The president's letter announcing his trip to Cuba was read by the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Chavez needs lawmakers' green light to be out of the country more than five days, and he asked for permission starting Tuesday but without saying precisely when he would leave.