Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro
© Agence France-Presse/Andres PiscovVenezuelan President Hugo Chavez (R) and Cuba's President Raul Castro
Caracas - President Hugo Chavez, in Cuba for a new round of cancer treatment following surgery to remove a malignant tumor, said in a phone call Sunday that he would return to Venezuela in five days.

Chavez was warmly embraced by Cuban President Raul Castro on his arrival at Jose Marti airport in Havana around midnight Saturday, the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde said on its website, describing the Venezuelan leader's demeanor as "animated" and upbeat.

Chavez said he immediately underwent the first of five rounds of radiation therapy treatment.

"I should return to Venezuela on Thursday," March 29, Chavez said in a phone call to Vice President Elias Jaua broadcast on VTV state television.

The announcement made to head off criticism that he had left Venezuela without permission from the National Assembly, the country's legislature, which must authorize a president's absence of more than five days.

Chavez, however, said that after three days of rest in Venezuela he will return to Cuba for the next session of radiation therapy.

The Venezuelan president's medical visit to Cuba coincides with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives Monday on the communist island and is scheduled to leave on Wednesday.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the pope, currently in Mexico, has not received a request for a meeting with Chavez. "This is totally new, it was not in the program," said Lombardi, who however left open the possibility of a meeting.

Chavez said in a message broadcast on radio and television before his departure that his overall treatment in Cuba would likely take "four or five weeks."

News of Chavez's cancer -- and this latest extended medical treatment -- comes at an awkward time for the Venezuelan leader, who is in the thick of what is expected to be a tough reelection campaign.

He faces a stiff challenge in October elections from 39-year-old state governor Henrique Capriles, who was chosen to represent a unified opposition in primaries earlier this year.

Chavez, 57, underwent surgery in Havana on February 26 to remove a cancerous tumor around the pelvis, the same area where Cuban surgeons extracted a malignant, baseball-sized tumor in June.

Officials in Caracas have never specified the type of cancer the president has, but insist it has not spread to other organs.

Chavez said the radiation therapy would be applied to the same areas where he had surgery, without specific details.

Chavez, who is running for a third term as president, has ruled out the possibility of a replacement candidate.

The Venezuelan leader has used the country's vast oil wealth to finance popular social programs at home while helping keep afloat his communist ally Cuba.