The president’s arrival in Caracas in the pre-dawn hours appeared designed to stanch rising indignation by opposition leaders critical of the secrecy surrounding Chavez’s health and suspicious about claims made by high government officials that he has been involved in the day-to-day decisions of state.
“From early today, the people know the truth, as told out by the president himself,” an overjoyed information minister, Ernesto Villegas, said on state television. “El Comandante is here. He’s back. He’s back. He’s back.”
But Chavez’s populist government did not release photos or video images of the president, who arrived at 2:30 a.m. and was whisked away to a military hospital in Caracas.
And while officials touted the transparency with which the government has handled Chavez’s ordeal, Venezuelans still do not know what kind of cancer Chavez has had, nor the prognosis. Villegas did say Friday that Chavez was breathing through a tracheal tube, but he also said the president’s “intellectual functions” were intact and that he was in “close communication” with aides.
The president’s health is of utmost importance because he was unable to attend his own swearing in on Jan. 10 after winning reelection in October, plunging the country into an institutional crisis that infuriated government opponents.
The Supreme Court, which is stacked with the president’s supporters, said Chavez could be inaugurated at a later, unspecified date in a ruling that some constitutional experts and government opponents called a legal travesty. Some analysts think that now that the president is in Caracas, an inauguration could soon be staged.
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas, said Chavez’s return is aimed at undercutting those opponents who charge that he is unable to govern and who say that new elections should be called, as is stipulated by law if a president is proven to be incapacitated.
“For now, at least, the most likely scenario is an effort by the government to muddle through, working to buy time for Chavez’s eventual recovery, if indeed he does recover,” Farnsworth said. “And without any concrete information about the status of his health or prognosis, the opposition can only speculate about his capacity to govern.”
For many of Chavez’s supporters, his unannounced arrival led to fireworks and prompted his red-shirted supporters to celebrate at the hospital where he was convalescing and at the city’s main square, Plaza Bolivar.
Yepsen Molina, 19, a university student, said he fired off two rockets at 3 a.m.
“I expected the news, but I didn’t know exactly when he was going to arrive,” Molina said. “I feel excellent!”