Hugo Chavez arrives in Venezuela

CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuela’s ever-theatrical  President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming from Cuba today and declared himself “fine” despite speculation his  cancer may still require lengthy treatment.
“I’m happy … I’m going to get some rest,” a  bubbly-sounding Chavez told state TV by telephone after  touching down in the early hours of the morning.
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 famously unpredictable 56-year-old president jetted in  just in time for two days of celebrations of Venezuela’s 200th  anniversary of independence from Spain.
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, punching a fist in  the air as he emerged from his airplane.
“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.
Despite supporters’ euphoria, Chavez’s exact condition  remains unclear, and he may still face lengthy treatment in  Venezuela. A military hospital was prepared for his arrival.
Chavez said it was “the start of the return,” implying to  some analysts that he may keep a low profile in Venezuela or  even return to Cuba for further cycles of treatment.
While his homecoming did not show anything conclusive about  his health, it does address complaints from critics that Chavez  was flouting the constitution and risking national security by  ruling from a hospital in a foreign country.
Sounding ecstatic, Vice President Elias Jaua called on  supporters to go to the Miraflores presidential palace in the  afternoon to give Chavez, 56, 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 sudden 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. We didn’t feel very secure the  way things were,” said supporter Pedro Alizu, 61, who works for  a security firm in the Venezuelan capital.
The socialist leader returned at about 2 a.m. local time  (0630 GMT) in the early hours of today.
Chavez, who casts himself as the inheritor of Bolivar’s  ideals, had been preparing for Tuesday’s celebrations for  years. “We are delighted the president is home,” Jaua said.
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.
“I didn’t expect him back today. When I went to bed last  night, there were still reports about him having serious cancer  and then I wake up this morning to the news that he’s here,”  said one middle-aged Caracas resident, who asked not to be  named.
“It’s all pretty confusing still.”
Around Caracas, some 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.”
In Cuba, Chavez’s friend and mentor Fidel Castro predicted  that Chavez would beat his cancer. “The patient has fought a  decisive battle that will lead him and Venezuela to a great  victory,” the former Cuban president wrote.
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.”

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