CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he believes he has beaten cancer and will be strong enough to rule for another six years if he wins re-election on October 7.
Speaking aboard an open-air truck Saturday as it wound its way through tens of thousands of supporters who had come to greet their longtime leader in Guarenas, a community east of Caracas, Chavez said in an exclusive interview with AFP that he was ready to govern until at least 2019.
"I think so, I feel great," the leftist firebrand said when asked if he had fully recovered from his illness.
"If I didn't feel strong enough, I wouldn't be here. We're even going to work at a faster pace," said Chavez, who is the frontrunner in a race against opposition leader Henrique Capriles that would give the incumbent his fourth term in office.
Chavez, 58, fell ill with cancer in 2011. But the exact nature of the cancer has never been revealed, with officials saying only that he has undergone two operations in Cuba to remove cancerous tumors from his pelvis.
He has also undergone multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy in Cuba following the surgeries.
In June, Chavez said a series of tests had shown that his radiation treatment had gone well and that he "will keep living to keep fighting for the country."
Chavez, who receded from public view for weeks as he recovered from his treatment, acknowledged Saturday that he had slowed down the pace of his activities.
"In the early years of government, I did not rest at all, but your body starts telling you that you need to slow down," he said, sipping from a small cup of coffee and waving left and right to supporters.
His return to the political spotlight coincided with the start in July of his election campaign against Capriles, 40, who has managed to rise in the polls after several tours of the country during which he campaigned door to door.
The latest poll, by Datanalisis, gives Chavez 49.4 percent -- a 10-point lead over Capriles -- but the challenger has cut the incumbent's lead in half in just four months.
Other polls give Chavez a bigger lead, while some have found a statistical tie.
Chavez said he was convinced he would beat Capriles and vowed to work to consolidate his advantage.
"The most important thing is to widen the gap in order to consolidate the revolution," he said.
He admitted failing to end Venezuela's dependence on oil revenues, which account for over 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings in the country with the world's highest crude reserves. But he said doing so takes time.
"This is a model that we have followed for 100 years," he said. "We have advanced, but it's a work in progress. It takes time to put the economy on the right track."
He also defended his radical reforms, which he described as more successful than the programs being attempted by the European left.
"Look at what is happening in Spain," he said. "It really pains me. I had discussed it many times with (former Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez) Zapatero. Unfortunately, they did not move forward with leftist reforms and lost the elections because they were moderate."
The sight of Chavez brought some women to tears as his truck passed through Guarenas, and some threw letters to him, which he patiently gathered together.
"What do you think they feel?" asked the charismatic leader, who has won the support of the poor during his almost 14 years in power by using oil revenues to spend lavishly on social programs.
He acknowledged having "committed errors in applying plans that didn't work the way they should have, especially in public services" -- an area where Capriles has attacked him, capitalizing on the country's infrastructure troubles and water and electricity shortages.
"The national government can't take care of everything. I can't take care of collecting garbage, for example," he said.
"We need more political, social and economic efficiency. We've rolled out education to the masses, but we still need to work on the quality" of schools.
And if he wins next Sunday, will he seek another six-year term in the next elections?
"We'll see. First things first," he said.