CARACAS, Venezuela — Ever the showman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stepped off a plane from Cuba early Monday, surprising a nation still reeling from his disclosure last week that doctors had removed a cancerous tumor from his body in a “major” operation that lasted more than six hours.
“Good morning, beloved Venezuela,” said the 56-year-old leftist populist after his plane touched down outside Caracas before dawn. The event was carefully orchestrated for the half-dozen state television channels that track his every move, with overjoyed ministers greeting him with hugs on the tarmac and Chavez breaking into song.
It neatly punctuated the heroic script the government and Chavez had set out to write as they grappled with his ordeal — that just as he had emerged victorious from bad episodes in his colorful career, he would triumph this time, too. And it happened just in the nick of time, as Venezuela prepared for the bicentennial of its independence, the kind of patriotic festivities Chavez savors.
“I could not miss the bicentennial party that is the life of the fatherland,” Chavez said in a brief evening speech from the balcony of the presidential palace. “That is why I say thank you to God, the Virgin, to the saints, to the spirits of the savannah.”
His arrival made clear, to an energetic opposition as well as to those within his Chavismo movement, that he remains the dominant politician in Venezuela after a dozen years in office, even as the specifics of his illness and any future health challenges remain unknown.
Venezuela is plagued by rising violent crime, steep inflation, blackouts and a housing shortage. But Chavez continues to marshal the support of about half of his people, polls show, astutely employing his substantial charisma as well as bombastic rhetoric that warns the poor that they could lose all the social progress they have made under him should his foes make headway.
“Even if he’s really sick and going to the hospital for cancer treatments, Chavez has to be very close to the power,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst who runs the polling firm Datanalisis. “The message for his own people, the leaders of the Chavismo, is ‘I am here, I am alive, and I am controlling power.’ ”
On Thursday, the president had ended nearly three weeks of speculation about his health by announcing the operation in a speech from Cuba broadcast on Venezuelan national television. He looked thin and pale and spoke in emotional terms.
Then, over the weekend, assorted state television channels ran a documentary about Chavez, interviews with ministers about his indomitable spirit and long spots that were akin to commercials, in which Venezuelans extolled his virtues and asked him to take his medicine, listen to the doctors and return home soon.
Chavez’s stalwart supporters, the red-clad, self-styled revolutionaries who say they are helping him implant a socialist system here, certainly expected his return. But they were joyous that it happened so fast and that a president who appeared diminished Thursday seemed much more buoyant and energetic.
“They said he wouldn’t come, but here he is — the commander is here!” said Wilmer Fermin, 50, a die-hard supporter who was among thousands who stood outside the presidential palace to hear Chavez speak. “He’s going to get better to keep ruling.”
The president’s political foes, faced with a clever adversary who has frequently come out on top, were careful after Chavez’s illness was announced. The most prominent opponents issued statements expressing hope that he would get better, while criticizing the government for releasing scant details about his condition.
Leopoldo Lopez, 40, a former mayor who hopes to run against Chavez in next year’s presidential election, said the leader’s behavior reflects the lack of transparency that has marked his administration.
“There is very little transparency in the information policy of the government toward Venezuelans, and the result of that is distrust, the breakup of the credibility of the government,” Lopez said.
Even now, the government has not said what kind of tumor was removed from Chavez’s body.
On Monday, Chavez did not delve into those particulars, preferring to focus on what he called “the sun of a new dawn” that came with his arrival in Caracas.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m happy.”