Caracas: President Hugo Chavez shocked and delighted Venezuelans by returning home Monday, albeit to an uncertain future, ending a more more than two-month absence in Cuba for cancer surgery and treatment.
Even as Chavez supporters took to the streets in noisy celebration, and foreign dignitaries congratulated Chavez and urged him to rest, the next step for the oil-rich country remained unclear.
It was not immediately known when, if at all, Chavez would be sworn in by the Supreme Court to begin the new term he won in elections late last year.
A Supreme Court court source said the tribunal is ready, and waiting for the go-ahead from Chavez and his medical team. The ceremony does not have to be public, the source said, suggesting it could be done with Chavez lying on his back in a hospital bed.
Indeed, Chavez may be home but as soon as he arrived he was hospitalized again for more treatment. He has undergone surgery four times since mid 2011.
Chavez announced his return on Twitter — he has nearly four million followers — and his arrival at Caracas airport was not broadcast on TV. That is unusual in this country he so thoroughly dominates both politically and personally.
“We have arrived again in our Venezuelan homeland,” Chavez wrote. “Thank you, God. Thank you, my beloved people. We will continue my treatment here.”
Chanting and banner-waving Chavez supporters gathered outside the hospital where Chavez was admitted.
Venezuelans had neither seen nor heard from him since he left for Cuba December 10 for a fourth round of cancer surgery, although on Friday photos of a bedridden but smiling Chavez were shown on Venezuelan TV. The government said it was hard for him to speak because has been fitted with a tracheal tube, due to a nagging post-operative respiratory infection. Chavez was first diagnosed with cancer in mid 2011.
Government updates on his condition have been sketchy, fueling speculation that the president was worse off than officials were admitting or perhaps even dead.
The government had never said what kind of cancer he had or where it was, or when he might return home. Now, seemingly out the blue, Chavez is back.
Pro-Chavez people also gathered in Bolivar Plaza to celebrate the return of their larger than life comandante, a garrulous populist who is the most visible face of the Latin American left and a thorn in the side of Washington for his alignment of oil-rich Venezuela with nations such as Iran, Syria and Cuba.
“He’s back, he’s back, he’s back,” supporters chanted, images on state-run VTV showed.
Mauro Delgado, an Ecuadoran taxi driver who has lived in Caracas for 34 years, said “if God is keeping him alive it must be for something. I think that if he came back it is because he is getting better. Otherwise, he would have stayed in Cuba.”
From Cuba, Fidel Castro hailed his long-time friend’s return home. He said a long and anxious wait is over for the Venezuelan people, thanks to Chavez’s “stunning physical stamina and the total dedication of the doctors” who treated him in Havana. That medical team accompanied Chavez back home.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, himself re-elected Sunday and a close Chavez ally, said he had received congratulations from Chavez and joked he was peeved with him.
“I really, really appreciate your congratulations, Commander Chavez, but I am angry. Forget about me and get some rest,” Correa said. “Venezuela, your beloved Latin America and we your friends all need you.”
The 58-year-old Chavez, who has been in power for more than 14 years, had declared himself free of cancer after earlier rounds of surgery and treatment and went on to win another six year term in elections last October.
But he later suffered a relapse, and after the latest surgery on December 11 in Havana he was still too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on January 10.
The inauguration has been postponed indefinitely, and Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked political heir, has essentially been running Venezuela in Chavez’s absence.
Conservative opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in the October elections, tweeted: “May the return of president mean that Mr. Maduro and the ministers will get down to work. There are many, many problems to resolve.”
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said uncertainty remains over the prospect of early elections — they would be called if Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated.
But with his return, support for Maduro will grow even more, Leon said.
A poll released Sunday said that if elections were held now between Maduro and Capriles, the former would win by 14 percentage points.
Opposition parties insist Chavez’s term ended January 10 and that if he cannot start a new one in person, an interim president should be named pending a decision on whether Chavez should be declared incapacitated, in which case a new election would be called quickly.
But throughout his illness, Chavez avoided relinquishing power, and the National Assembly had voted to grant him unlimited leave to undergo medical treatment outside of the country.
In his Twitter message, Chavez also expressed his gratitude to Cuba and its leaders for their assistance in his medical treatment.
“Thank you Fidel, Raul and everybody in Cuba,” he wrote, referring to Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro. “And thank you, Venezuela, for so much love.”
As before, he underscored his belief in God and hopes for complete recovery.
“I am holding on to Jesus Christ and trust my doctors and nurses,” the president said. “As always, see you in victory. We will live and we will win.”