By Pascal Fletcher
CARACAS (Reuters) - For years, Venezuela's irrepressible President Hugo Chavez has taunted frustrated opponents with the prospect he will rule into the third decade of this century.
But the aura of self-assured invincibility that is one of his most potent political weapons appeared dented on Thursday when the 56-year-old leader told his people and the world from Cuba about the removal of a cancerous tumor.
In place of the usual torrent of bombastic prose, which gushes from Chavez as freely as the sulfurous crude Venezuela exports, the world saw an apparently humbled man acknowledging the limits of his mortality and thanking God for his recovery.
Gone was the ebullient energy of a Latin American political Juggernaut whose stamina and marathon speeches have projected his influence and that of his oil-producing country across the world.
A subdued and thinner-looking Chavez carefully read a prepared speech which, despite its heroic tone, was restrained in its reference to his recovery.
His words "I think we've managed it, thank you my God" sounded more like an expression of faith than the triumphal conviction with which he habitually expresses himself.
Instead of threats to wipe his foes off the face of the earth, Chavez spoke soberly of emerging from an "abyss."
He compared his brush with cancer with other critical setbacks in his two decades-long political life, such as his failed 1992 military uprising and his own brief overthrow in a 2002 coup against him.
Chavez came roaring back victorious after those setbacks, sweeping to power in 1998 elections after years in prison and consolidating his Bolivarian Revolution after 2002 with broad nationalizations and socialist policies that directly challenged the United States.
NO RETURN DATE
But the open-ended nature of his recovery -- the final words of his speech from Havana "Until my return" gave no hint of a date -- has inflamed rather than dampened the feverish speculation about his political future, especially ahead of a tough election battle in 2012.
The prospect of a power vacuum and possible instability in OPEC member Venezuela will worry many, although both Chavez and his ministers made a point of insisting the Bolivarian Revolution's undisputed leader -- he has no clear successor in Chavista ranks -- remained firmly at the helm.
"Let no one have any doubts -- it's Chavez who's in charge here," Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
Chavez peppered his speech late on Thursday with glowing praise for his political mentor, 84-year-old former Cuban President Fidel Castro, from whom the Venezuelan ex-paratrooper assumed the mantle of anti-U.S. militancy in Latin America.
He called Castro a "giant".
Castro himself, a political colossus who held sway for nearly half a century in Cuba and projected his revolutionary message across the planet, was laid low by illness in 2006 that forced him to hand powers to his younger brother Raul, the current Cuban president.
Although the elderly Castro remains an opinionated oracle and scribe on world affairs, Cuba's revolutionary beacon has undoubtedly dimmed with his diminished leadership role and as the tide of history has moved definitively away from centralized one-party communism.
It seems fitting that it was Castro, according to Chavez, who personally informed the Venezuelan leader that the Cuban doctors attending him had discovered the cancerous tumor which required a second operation after the earlier excision of a pelvic abscess.
Both men, soulmates in ideology and high-voltage populist politics, seem to bear out the reality that you can overcome political opponents and even survive assassination plots and coups -- but you cannot beat biology.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Anthony Boadle)