By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will seek another six-year term in an election next year despite recent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, he told a state newspaper in an interview published late on Sunday.
News that the 56-year-old socialist leader underwent an operation last month in Havana to remove a baseball-sized tumor has called into question his long-term health and his fitness to continue governing the OPEC nation of 29 million people.
"I have medical reasons, scientific reasons, human reasons, reasons of love and political reasons to keep myself at the front of the government and the candidacy with more force than before," Chavez told the Correo del Orinoco newspaper.
"On a personal level, I tell you I have never thought for even an instant of retiring from the presidency."
Chavez returned to South America's biggest oil exporter on Saturday a week after leaving for chemotherapy in Cuba, saying no malignant cells had been found and that he was arriving home in better health than when he left.
"They checked organ by organ, taking tests to see if there had been metastasis, and they didn't find anything. The tumor was encapsulated," he told the newspaper, which splashed "Chavez to be candidate in 2012" across its frontpage.
A former soldier whose workaholic leadership style and folksy charisma have helped him win numerous votes, Chavez is visibly weakened as he plans his re-election campaign for a poll scheduled to be held in December 2012.
During a tumultuous 12 years in power, he has become one of the world's most polarizing and recognizable leaders, frequently lambasting the United States while nationalizing large parts of his country's economy.
Parliamentary elections last September showed Venezuela split down the middle between Chavez supporters and opponents. A fractious opposition coalition now senses a chance to unseat the convalescing president at the ballot box next year.
Chavez had two operations in Havana last month that he has said were complicated: the first for a pelvic abscess and a second to remove the tumor.
In the interview, Chavez recounted how former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his close friend and mentor, told him in the hospital that last week's medical tests had discovered no malignant cells.
"He told me they found nothing. I have never heard such a short speech by Fidel," Chavez joked, adding that Castro "had happiness in his face" when he saw him off at the airport.
"It was very different from how it was a month ago."
Earlier on Sunday, Chavez attended a function celebrating the 228th anniversary of the birth of his inspiration, South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
After leading a group of ministers and dignitaries around the home where Bolivar was born, he spoke for almost an hour in a televised speech that was reminiscent of the time before his illness, when he often held forth for several hours a day.
"One has to have a good spirit," he told the Correo del Orinoco. "This body, of nearly 57 years, is responding well." (Editing by Doina Chiacu)