Hugo Chávez makes surprise return to Venezuela after cancer surgery

Venezuelan president prepares for first public appearance after leaving to undergo treatment in Cuba

The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, made a surprise homecoming on Monday, nearly a month after leaving the country to have cancer surgery in Cuba. Without warning, Chávez landed at Maiquetia airport, near Caracas, in the early hours and was expected to give a triumphant address to thousands of supporters.

"This is the beginning of the return. We are very happy to be back home," Chávez told state-controlled television channel VTV shortly after stepping off the plane.

"Greetings to the Venezuelan people with my whole heart; a million kisses and a million hugs," added Chávez, who only admitted to having received treatment for cancer on Thursday after weeks of secrecy and speculation.

Shortly after arriving, Chávez was back on Twitter and preparing to make his first public appearance since the start of June. "So I am back at home and very happy," said a message on his @chavezcandanga account. "Good day my beloved Venezuela. Good day my beloved people. Thank you my God. This is the start of the Return."

Authorities in Caracas invited supporters to congregate outside the Miraflores Palace at 4pm local time on Monday. Chávez is expected to make an address from its Balcón del pueblo, or People's balcony.

"We are delighted the president is home," Vice-President Elías Jaua told state television. "President Chávez has wanted to have an encounter with the Venezuelan people who have prayed, mobilised and put so much energy into his quick recovery and return."

Jaua said the address would signal the start of new "battles and future victories for the people, with him as leader".

Chávez's return came soon after the country's football team clinched what was widely touted as a "victory" over all-powerful Brazil – a 0-0 draw in the Copa América.

"What a tremendous game by the Vinotinto," the president tweeted, using the team's nickname, Red Wine. "We are so proud of you boys!" Political analysts had suggested Chávez might attempt a homecoming to coincide with Venezuela's independence celebrations on Tuesday, although those chances appeared to have faded on Thursday when Chávez admitted he had been diagnosed with an unspecified form of cancer.

Chávez said on Monday: "I don't think I will be able to join you for the official celebrations. But I am with you, back in my command post."

"I am back at the epicentre of Bolívar," Chávez said, in a reference to Simon Bolívar, the South American liberator and inspiration for the socialist leader's 21st-century "revolution".

Javier Corrales, a political scientist and Venezuela specialist at Amherst College in Massachusetts, described the dramatic pre-dawn return as "typical Chávez".

"He is a micro-manager par excellence, convinced of his own indispensability. Thus a premature return is less surprising from Chávez than a prolonged absence," said Corrales.

"Governance in Venezuela might not necessarily improve with an ailing president back in residence, but at least the internal confusion and posturing within his ruling party will ease for now," he added.

Venezuela is scheduled to hold presidential elections next year but most opposition politicians have refrained from launching explicit attacks on the convalescing president, fearful of triggering a backlash from voters.

The opposition media has shown less restraint, drawing parallels between the poor state of Chávez's health and the country as a whole.

"The illness of the head of state coincides with an similarly adverse economic outlook," noted Roberto Deniz in the opposition newspaper El Universal.

Corrales said Chávez faced "a tough scenario", with an energy crisis and economic woes presenting a treacherous lead-up to the election.

"Until his health improves, Chávez's best hope to prevail in the forthcoming elections may be to win enough sympathy votes," he said.


Tom Phillips and Virginia Lopez in Caracas

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