By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS (Reuters) - Looking stronger after cancer treatment, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez declared himself reborn phoenix-like for his 57th birthday on Thursday in a sign the socialist president believes he is overcoming his illness.
"I've arrived at 57 being reborn, a new life, my eternal return," said Chavez, whom opponents accuse of exploiting his health problems to further promote a personality cult.
In the past, Chavez came back triumphant from a failed coup he led, and a putsch that briefly drove him from power.
"I'm like the phoenix, I've returned to life," he said in an early morning phone call to state TV from the presidential palace, where a cockerel crowed in the background.
Later, Chavez sang and jigged on the balcony of the palace as crowds cheered him on a day of supporters' celebrations in honor of his birthday around the South American nation.
"I'm halfway through my life, another 57 years are coming!" joked an ebullient Chavez, sporting a yellow shirt he said his daughter had given him as a gift and a pair of sunglasses sent by Ecuador's fellow leftist leader Rafael Correa.
In the state TV interview, Chavez said he expected the tough stage of his illness to be over by the end of this year.
He invited Latin American presidents to a summit in December that he had earlier canceled for health reasons.
A former soldier whose greatest victory was the collapse of a 2002 military rebellion after massive popular protests demanded his return, Chavez has used the years since to nationalize much of the economy of the major U.S. oil supplier.
He has made two trips to Cuba for an operation to remove a large tumor and to undergo a first session of chemotherapy.
But in another sign the garrulous president may be returning to his comfort zone, he has begun lambasting Washington again.
"The empire is bankrupt and could drag half the world down with it," he said during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, referring to the possible U.S. debt default.
"Fix your own problems first, decadent empire."
CHAVEZ WANTS RE-ELECTION
Chavez, who wants at least one more six-year term and often taunts foes that he will be in office for decades, made clear this week he still intended to run for re-election next year.
He said his illness had made him even more determined to be a candidate and that he had not thought of giving up the presidency "for even an instant."
Parliamentary elections in 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.
Increasing television appearances along with his buoyant mood indicate Chavez is confident the chemotherapy is working.
Even so, the leader who rose from humble rural roots and built a political career on his charisma and close contact with mainly poor supporters said he was largely confined to the Miraflores palace because of the risk of a health setback.
"I'd love to come out into the street but I should not and cannot because of the risk of infection. My defenses are low as a result of the chemotherapy," Chavez said.
He is due back in Cuba soon for a second round of chemotherapy that he said is likely to cause hair-loss.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Mario Naranjo and Eyanir Chinea; editing by Daniel Wallis, Andrew Cawthorne and Mohammad Zargham)