(File image) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

Caracas - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said he will travel on Friday to Cuba, where he is to undergo surgery early next week on a lesion in the same area where he had a cancerous tumour removed last year.

Chavez, 57, made the announcement during a cabinet meeting broadcast on radio and television on Thursday, noting that a preparatory examination was needed before the operation could take place on “Monday or Tuesday”.

The firebrand leftist leader, who is seeking re-election this year, said he would travel with a group of officials and stay in constant touch with affairs at home, adding he hoped his stay in Cuba would be as short as possible.

The divisive president also called on his supporters to be wary of rumours which would “surely” start to circulate about his state of health.

Lawmakers authorised Chavez to travel to Cuba for a period of over five days.

During his previous convalescence, which saw several absences for surgery and chemotherapy in Havana, Chavez remained at the head of government.

The opposition on Thursday asked that Chavez delegate powers to his Vice-President Elias Jaua during his latest absence. But the pro-government majority in Congress rejected the request.

Months after declaring himself cancer-free, Chavez revealed on Tuesday that he would require surgery to remove the latest lesion, which he said was likely cancerous.

He had a tumour removed from his pelvic area in June last year, but has never clarified what kind of cancer he has.

Chavez, who has been in power since 1999, is facing a strong election challenge in October from 39-year-old Henrique Capriles, who was chosen as the sole opposition candidate in a presidential primary earlier this month.

He told his party to “accelerate plans” to win at the polls, with only “seven months to the elections and the great victory”.

But his revelation that his cancer may have returned plunged the South American nation into a period of uncertainty as it ramps up for what many expect to be the most closely contested presidential election in years.

Chavez could still tap a successor to run in his place, the October 7 vote could be delayed, or he could muddle through with a campaign message shifting attention from his health to the legacy of his Bolivarian revolution.

But underlying the speculation are deeper fears of the unpredictable consequences of a vacuum of power in a country that has been dominated by Chavez since he came to power.

Among those mentioned as his possible successors are Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chavez's brother Adan, the governor of the state of Barinas.

“It's imperative to start thinking about the takeover and the leadership - a complicated task because it's a personalised movement which revolves around Chavez,” said Mariana Bacalao, professor at the Andres Bello University. - Sapa-AFP