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Smiling Chavez makes surprise return to Venezuela

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez makes a surprise return after his treatment in Cuba in time for the 200th independence anniversary celebrations

Reuters , Monday 4 Jul 2011
Venezuela
A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez paints a mural depicting him in Caracas, Friday, (Reuters).
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Venezuela's ever-unpredictable President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming from Cuba on Monday 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.

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.

In a classic piece of Chavez theater, the 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.

"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.

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.

Despite euphoria among supporters, Chavez's exact condition remains unclear, and he may still face lengthy treatment in Venezuela. A military hospital was prepared for his arrival.

The homecoming addresses complaints from critics that he was flouting the constitution and risking national security by ruling from a hospital in a foreign country.

Since taking office in 1999, the always theatrical Chavez has shown himself on the palace balcony at the biggest moments of his turbulent and incident-packed rule.

His 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 Monday.

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 in Cuba -- one to remove a cancerous tumor -- would keep him in Havana for weeks and 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."

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