Chavez makes surprise return to Venezuela
Here I am, home and happy! Good morning, beloved Venezuela, said Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez.
Caracas: Venezuela's ever-theatrical President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming on Monday after cancer surgery in Cuba and declared himself "fine" despite speculation he may still require lengthy treatment.
"Here I am, home and happy! Good morning, beloved Venezuela," a bubbly Chavez said, punching his fist in the air and singing a folk song after touching down in the early hours.
"Now I'm going to get some rest."
With their 'comandante' back on Venezuelan soil, elated supporters took to the streets of Caracas within minutes, chanting: "He's back! He's back!"
Chavez's return changes the political dynamics once again in Venezuela, where politicians on all sides had been bracing for a protracted months-long absence of the man who has dominated the OPEC member nation for the last 12 years.
The unpredictable 56-year-old president, who has nationalized vast swaths of the economy and led regional opposition to the United States, jetted in just in time for two days of celebrations of Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.
"He wanted to prevent the situation from unraveling," U.S. analyst Michael Shifter said.
"The bicentennial was too compelling an occasion to miss ... it was politically irresistible."
Local media have speculated Chavez could be about to shake up his cabinet, quoting Vice President Elias Jaua as saying Chavez would organize his team "for the new stage to come."
Many Venezuelans had thought Chavez's convalescence after two operations last month in Cuba -- one to remove a cancerous tumor -- would keep him in Havana for weeks, possibly months.
State media showed video footage of Chavez bidding farewell to Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana and then being greeted by ebullient ministers at Maiquetia airport outside Caracas.
"I'm fine. I feel well," Chavez said.
"I'm back at the epicenter of Bolivar," he added, in reference to his idol, Simon Bolivar, a hero of Venezuela's and South America's fight for independence from Spanish rule.
Inspired by Bolivar, Chavez has boosted state control over the oil industry, created restrictions on currency exchange, and launched state takeovers of companies ranging from cement makers to producers of glass bottles and toilets.
Classic Chavez theater
Despite euphoria among supporters, Chavez's exact condition remains unclear, and he may still face lengthy treatment, throwing into question his ability to prepare for a 2012 re-election bid.
Chavez said his homecoming was "the start of the return," implying to some he may keep a low profile in Venezuela or even return to Cuba for further cycles of treatment.
Jaua said the socialist leader was resting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.
"We all have to help him get treatment so he cures himself," he said. "He doesn't need hospital attention right now. He can get treatment at his residence, wherever he is."
While not showing anything conclusive about his health, his return to Venezuela does address complaints from critics that Chavez was flouting the constitution and risking national security by ruling from a hospital in a foreign country.
"He just needed to appear back here to show people he is capable of overcoming all adversity," local analyst Luis Vicente Leon told Reuters. "This apparition may have a magical and motivational effect on his followers."
Supporters were called to the presidential palace for the afternoon to give Chavez a welcome reception.
Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has shown himself on the palace balcony at the biggest moments of his turbulent and incident-packed rule -- including his return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup against him.
Chavez's return caught Venezuelans by surprise on the first of two days of holidays for Tuesday's independence date.
"That's amazing. We wanted him here because he's the president of all Venezuelans," said supporter Pedro Alizu, 61, who works for a security firm in the Venezuelan capital.
The saga of Chavez's health has helped distract attention from a number of problems that threaten to weaken his support among the country's poorest, including frequent power outages, high crime and a growing shortage of affordable housing.
Polls show those concrete issues are increasingly weakening the appeal of his history-steeped nationalism, which frequently invokes the Latin American unity efforts of the 19th century.
"For a government to be able to rise from its ashes, it needs to improve the economic and social situation of the country," said Antonio Ledezma, opposition mayor of Metropolitan Caracas and a virulent Chavez critic.
Still, opposition politicians have struggled to give a strong and united response to the Chavez health drama.
While clearly encouraged by the prospects for their election campaign next year, they also do not want to be seen exulting in his physical misfortune.
Chavez had been preparing for Tuesday's celebrations for years. He even named a nationalized supermarket chain and group of banks "Bicentennial" last year in honor of the anniversary.
A military parade and street parties were planned.
Around Caracas, impromptu parties began among Chavez supporters, some picking up instruments and singing.
"He's brought the soul back to our bodies, the smile back to our lives. Welcome home, Comandante!" said Mario Silva, a TV presenter known for his aggressive espousal of "Chavismo".
Reaction among opposition supporters was more muted.
"He's still sick. How can he rule Venezuela?" said one woman, who is a member of opposition party Democratic Action and asked not to be named "so the Chavistas don't come for me."