Ailing Hugo Chavez makes theatrical return to Venezuela

February 18, 2013

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return to his homeland on Monday after a 10-week convalescence in Cuba following cancer surgery, a long absence that had raised doubts among his opponents and even some supporters about who was running the oil-rich nation.

“We have arrived back in the Venezuelan fatherland,” Chavez announced via Twitter after landing in Caracas. “Thank you, my God! Thank you, my beloved people!”

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.

Timeline: 12 key events from the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

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!”

Students of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela , a Chavez stronghold, described being elated that the leader with whom they have an almost mystical connection was back in the country. In interviews, several expressed displeasure with the way the country had been governed since Chavez left for Cuba on Dec. 10 for his fourth cancer surgery since June 2011.

“It’s about time he got here,” said student Wildre Colmenares, 22. “Things were quite out of control without him. It was time for him to put order to things.”

In recent weeks, Venezuela has been buffeted by a series of crises, from a prison riot that left 58 dead to increasingly severe food shortages. Then last week, a 32 percent devaluation of the currency went into effect, which could fuel an already sky-high inflation rate.

David Smilde, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America who is doing research in Venezuela, said one possible scenario in the weeks ahead is that Chavez chooses to step aside, triggering elections in 30 days. The president’s hand-picked successor would be Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who has increasingly been in the public spotlight.

“In the short run, Maduro is the strong favorite to win an election,” Smilde said. “However, the more time passes, the harder it will become as serious problems of governance will continue to emerge.”

Luis Vicente Leon, a leading pollster in Caracas, said that polls he conducted in December after Chavez flew to Havana showed that the president had gained 12 points in popularity in two months. That support, from Venezuelans who empathize with his illness, can be transferred to Maduro, Leon said, but only for so long.

“A long time span plays against emotion,” Leon said, which would give more momentum to the leading opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old governor. “Capriles can be a difficult challenge for Maduro in the medium or long term, probably not in the short term.”

For now, though, Chavez sounded like a determined fighter in the tweets he issued upon arriving in Caracas .

“I am clinging to Christ and trusting my doctors and nurses,” Chavez wrote. “Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!”

Diaz reported from Caracas.

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