- Associated Press - Sunday, March 18, 2012

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - President Hugo Chavez led an energetic homecoming celebration on Saturday, rallying thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace after three weeks in Cuba for cancer surgery.

Chavez turned the event into a campaign rally, vowing to win re-election in the Oct. 7 presidential vote and demanding unity from his followers. Returning to the combativeness that has characterized much of his 13-year presidency, Chavez insulted his opponents and denounced a state governor who recently broke ranks with his party as a “traitor to the revolution.”

The president referred to his health only briefly, saying he will start radiation therapy treatment in the coming days “in order to attack any new threat.”

“This cancer can’t beat Chavez either!” he shouted to the crowd during the hourlong speech.

He gesticulated emphatically as he warned that his opponents cannot be trusted.

“We have to work very hard, be very united, very alert, very conscious of the risks that always exist when you’re going to confront people who always fight dirty, and behind them there’s also a lot of power _ the Yankee (U.S.) empire, the CIA,” Chavez said. “Big transnational companies are behind the campaign of the Venezuelan right. … We have to be watchful, because it’s not just any battle. No, the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution is at stake.”

His supporters below chanted: “The people are with you!”

Chavez waved, blew kisses and raised a fist when he appeared on the balcony, then took the microphone and sang along with a Venezuelan folk song while a band played.

“Long live Venezuela!” Chavez told the crowd, flanked by his aides. He reiterated that his latest cancer surgery in Cuba was successful, and said he feels a “commitment to you all to live.”

His supporters cheered, beat drums and waved flags, chanting “Take care of yourself!” Some in the crowd wore T-shirts with Chavez’s face emblazoned on them. Others said they’re praying for the president’s health.

“We know the world is worried about President Chavez,” said Carlos Morgado, a 59-year-old artist who has painted murals of the president. But Morgado said he thinks Chavez is looking strong and “he’s also capable of combatting death … and beating death.”

Chavez came down firmly against Monagas state Gov. Jose Gregorio Briceno, who was suspended from Chavez’s party on Wednesday after making critical remarks about the president of the National Assembly.

“He’s a counterrevolutionary,” Chavez said. “I knew that was going to happen.”

The Venezuelan leader arrived home on Friday night looking haggard but expressing optimism that he will overcome cancer.

Chavez spent three weeks in Cuba, leaving many Venezuelans wondering about his long-term prospects and about how his health will evolve ahead of the election. Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, such as the type of cancer, spurring speculation.

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