Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told his countrymen Thursday night that he underwent a “major” operation in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor.

In a speech televised from Cuba, Chavez, 56, said he underwent the surgery in the early hours of June 11 after abdominal pains during a visit with Fidel Castro prompted him to seek medical assistance from Cuban doctors. He said that after that operation “the presence of other formations” began to appear and exams confirmed the existence of an “abscessed tumor.”

“That made a second surgical intervention necessary that allowed for the complete extraction of that tumor,” he said, reading from a prepared text and standing at a podium in front of a portrait of his guiding light, 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Chavez’s comments were his first about his condition since Venezuelan officials in the capital, Caracas, told the public that the populist leader had gone under the scalpel to remove a pelvic abscess. The government treated Chavez’s health like a state secret, which generated roiling speculation about the president’s health.

Robust and energetic, and prone to governing in front of TV cameras, Chavez caused a stir by disappearing for 16 days. His supporters flocked to churches to pray for him, and his opponents called for a temporary transfer of power to the vice president, Elias Jaua.

Jaua has led government events in Chavez’s absence, and Chavez’s elder brother, Adan, also has increased his public presence, appearing at a weekend prayer meeting for Chavez’s health. After Chavez’s speech Thursday, the vice president appeared on television at the presidential palace, calling for support and unity among Venezuelans, the Associated Press reported.

“It’s up to us, people and government, to keep advancing,” Jaua said, according to the state-run Venezuelan News Agency. “We feel extremely optimistic about this battle that President Chavez has begun for a full recovery of his health.”

In his address, Chavez said he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. But gone was the usual confidence and bombast characteristic of his speeches. The address was also short and focused, unusual for a leader accustomed to giving rambling addresses that can last up to seven hours.

He looked thinner and pale and appeared emotional as he spoke about Bolivar, his loyal followers and his past close calls with death, including a 1992 failed coup attempt that he led and his brief 2002 ouster from power. “I felt like I was drowning,” Chavez said of those times. “That I was sinking.”

He said he was emerging from a steep road. “I think we have made it — thank you, my God,” he said.