By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had a successful operation on Friday in Cuba for an abscess in the pelvis discovered on the last stage of this week's tour around Latin America, his government said.
The usually fit and sports-loving Chavez had been out of the limelight for several weeks, due to a knee injury, before visiting Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba.
"With his knee injury almost totally better, President Chavez suffered a new health problem, which was immediately assessed by his medical team," said a statement by the Venezuelan government read on state TV.
Surgery to correct the pelvic problem was carried out in the morning in Havana "with satisfactory results for the health of Commander Hugo Chavez, who is recovering with his family, medical team and part of the government team," it added.
Chavez, 56, will stay on in Cuba for a few days until he is in a condition to return, the statement said, emphasizing the Venezuelan leader's gratitude to President Raul Castro, his brother Fidel, and the Cuban health system, for the support.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is Chavez's political mentor, and the Venezuelan leader has frequently visited the island for meetings, rest and inspiration during his 12 years in charge of the South American OPEC member nation.
The energetic Chavez loves to pitch at baseball games, but he has slowed down in recent years as age and the pressures of office have taken their toll.
His disappearance from the public eye, during his knee injury, fueled speculation in Venezuelan opposition and media circles that he may have a worse medical problem, and the operation in Cuba is bound to spur more rumors.
Officials scoff at that as wishful and uncharitable thinking by Venezuelans bitter at Chavez's socialist policies.
"I will happily die in the service of the suffering people," Chavez was quoted as saying in Friday's statement, in his typically melodramatic language.
Chavez has polarized opinion among Venezuelans, with many regarding him as a savior of the poor but others as an autocrat obsessed with staying in power.
He plans to run for re-election in 2012.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Peter Cooney)