CARACAS Venezuela's Hugo Chavez said on Sunday he had started radiation treatment in Cuba, where he could also meet Pope Benedict in the latest high profile development as the president tries to fight off cancer and win re-election.
Chavez was back in Havana a month after he had surgery there to remove a second malignant tumour from his pelvis. The treatment will take him off the political stage just as his election rival gears up a nationwide campaign tour ahead of the October 7 vote.
In a phone call to Venezuelan state TV, Chavez said he had undergone the first of five sessions of radiation therapy.
"Last night I had the first session, fortunately without any kind of problems. Early tonight I'll have a second application," he said. "God willing, I will be in Venezuela on Thursday."
The return of the socialist leader to the communist-led island will coincide with a rare visit to Cuba by the pope, and Venezuelans have been captivated by the possibility that Chavez, who says he has gained a new spiritual outlook on life since his illness, could have a private audience with him.
There was no official confirmation of that, but Nelson Bocaranda, a pro-opposition Venezuelan journalist who has broken news on the president's treatment in the absence of details from the government, said his sources in Cuba and high up in the Catholic church told him the pope had agreed to meet Chavez.
"The meeting will be strictly private, without media coverage, and the only ones who will be present, in addition to the pope and Chavez, could be the Castros and the Venezuelan's daughters," Bocaranda wrote in his column on Sunday.
"No other relatives nor Venezuelan officials can be at the meeting, which took so much to organize. No representative of the Venezuelan bishops will be present in Cuba."
Bocaranda said the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, could also attend the talks, which his sources told him were likely to be held at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana. Pope Benedict is ending a three-day tour of Mexico and is due to arrive in Cuba on Monday.
After three cancer operations in less than a year and four sessions of chemotherapy treatment, Chavez says he has been spiritually "reborn." He frequently invokes God and the spirits of the Venezuelan plains where he was born.
A Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he did not know if the pope would meet Venezuela's leader.
"I did not have this information ... we are not informed in this regard," he told reporters in Mexico late on Saturday when asked about the possibility.
Little is known about what kind of cancer Chavez has, nor how serious it is, so big questions remain about his future.
ANXIETY AMONG SUPPORTERS
His latest departure from Venezuela will stoke anxiety among supporters worried about his health, as well as fan persistent rumours of a power struggle brewing in his inner circle.
Chavez has dominated the nation's politics for the past 13 years and his illness has shocked voters across South America's biggest oil exporter in the run-up to the election.
Some question how fit he would be to govern if he won and the radiation therapy is expected to keep him from conducting the kind of man-on-the-street campaign that has worked so well in the past to help him drive forward his leftist "revolution."
On Saturday, Chavez said the treatment would last four to five weeks in total.
"You must know that radiation therapy lasts several days, then a break, then more days, then another break, so I'm going to be coming and going," he said. "It's possible that we could do some sessions in Venezuela.
"The most important thing, whether it's here or there, is the effectiveness of the treatment."
Chavez's weaker figure contrasts sharply with the energetic image presented by his rival, basketball-loving 39-year-old Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles.
Most recent polls have given Chavez a strong lead over Capriles, mainly thanks to huge state spending on popular social projects, as well as his charisma and strong emotional connection with the country's poor majority.
Venezuelan opinion polls, however, have long been highly divergent and controversial, with accusations of bias filling the airwaves every time a new one is published.
Three surveys that came out this month gave Chavez a lead in voter intentions of between 52 percent and 57 percent, versus 22 percent to 34 percent for Capriles. Then a fourth put them just one point apart: 46 percent for Chavez and 45 percent for his opponent.
Before he left for Havana on Saturday, Chavez hammered the opposition during a televised cabinet meeting. He regularly says his political foes are "ultra-right" U.S. puppets determined to destabilize the country and cause chaos and bloodshed.
"So now they've started to put out some polls saying it's a dead heat. Well, behind that is a violent plan," Chavez said.