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PILAR, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina's popular president, Cristina Fernandez, was undergoing an operation for thyroid cancer on Wednesday, months after she was re-elected to a second four-year term.
The government last week announced her diagnosis of papillary carcinoma, detected during a routine medical checkup just before Christmas. Doctors say the 58-year-old president has a better than 90 percent chance of recovery.
The diagnosis sparked sympathy in a country where Eva Peron, wife of former leader Juan Peron and known as Evita, is revered decades after dying of cancer at the age of 33. Like Evita, Fernandez is loved for her efforts on behalf of Argentina's poor.
The operation began at 8:20 a.m. (1120 GMT), according to local media.
Holding signs reading "Strength Cristina," dozens of supporters, who rallied around Fernandez after the 2010 death of her husband and predecessor as president Nestor Kirchner, gathered outside the hospital in the city of Pilar, some 28 miles (45 km) north of the capital Buenos Aires.
"We started a vigil since yesterday in hopes that everything goes well. We're supporting our president. We're rallying behind her," said Rosa Aguirre, 50, a homemaker.
Vice President Amado Boudou assumes the presidency during Fernandez's 20-day leave of absence.
Widely popular among Argentines who benefit from her generous welfare spending, the president often gets bad marks from business leaders who say her interventions in the economy frighten off investment.
She is one of several left-leaning Latin American leaders to have cancer. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who underwent chemotherapy last year, speculated after the Fernandez diagnosis that the U.S. "empire" may have developed a way to give the illness to its political rivals.
Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo's lymphatic cancer is in remission and former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is being successfully treated for a tumor on his larynx.
A talented orator fond of glamorous clothes, high heels and make-up, Fernandez still wears black as she mourns Kirchner.
Many thought his death spelled the end of the couple's idiosyncratic blend of state intervention, nationalist rhetoric and championing of human rights. But Fernandez won re-election in a landslide in October, helped by brisk economic growth fueled in part by hefty grain export revenues.
Having secured a second four-year term with 54 percent of the vote, she promised to stay true to her policies despite complaints from Wall Street and international investors over her unorthodox approach to the economy.
Argentina is a grain exporting powerhouse and supplies almost half of the world's soyoil, used for cooking and for making biofuels. It is just as strong in soymeal, used to feed cattle, and provides 20 percent of the world's corn.
At a time of heightened tensions with the country's most powerful union leader, Hugo Moyano, the cancer diagnosis helped quell rumblings of a transportation workers strike over year-end bonus demands.
The work stoppage would have hit the grains sector because most of the country's agricultural goods are taken to port by truck.
Additional reporting by Alejandro Lifschitz; writing by Hugh Bronstein; editing by Mohammad Zargham