Published by Reuters
Andrew Cawthorne and Pascal Fletcher
(Reuters) - Venezuela's ever-theatrical President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming on Monday after cancer surgery in Cuba and declared himself "fine" despite speculation he may still require lengthy treatment.
"Here I am, home and happy! Good morning, my beloved Venezuela," a bubbly Chavez said, punching his fist in the air and singing a folk song after touching down in the early hours.
"Now I'm going to get some rest."
With their 'comandante' back on Venezuelan soil, groups of delirious supporters took to the streets of Caracas within minutes, chanting: "He's back! He's back!"
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.
The famously unpredictable 56-year-old president jetted in just in time for two days of celebrations of Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.
Many Venezuelans had thought Chavez's convalescence after two operations last month in Cuba—one to remove a cancerous tumour—would keep him in Havana for weeks, possibly months.
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 epicentre 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.
CLASSIC CHAVEZ Theatre
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.
Chavez said it was "the start of the return", implying to some analysts that he may stay low profile in Venezuela or even return to Cuba for further cycles of treatment.
While not showing anything conclusive about his health, the homecoming does address complaints from critics that Chavez was flouting the constitution and risking national security by ruling from a hospital in a foreign country.
"Chavez did not need to show himself strong, recovering or energetic. He just needed to appear back here to show people he is capable of overcoming all adversity," local analyst Luis Vicente Leon told Reuters.
"This apparition may have a magical and motivational effect on his followers."
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.
Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has shown himself on the palace balcony at the biggest moments of his turbulent and incident-packed rule—including his return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup against him.
Chavez's 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. (7:30 a.m. British time) 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.
A military parade and street-parties are planned, though Chavez indicated he would not be able to physically attend the events despite his presence in Caracas again.
"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."
Around Caracas, some impromptu parties began among Chavez supporters, some picking up instruments and singing.
"He's brought the soul back to our bodies, the smile back to our lives. Welcome home, Comandante!" said Mario Silva, a TV presenter known for his aggressive espousal of "Chavismo".
In Cuba, Chavez's friend and mentor Fidel Castro predicted that Chavez would beat his cancer. "The patient has fought a decisive battle that will lead him and Venezuela to a great victory," the former Cuban president wrote.
Reaction among opposition supporters was more muted.
"He's still sick. How can he rule Venezuela?" said one woman, who is a member of opposition party Democratic Action and asked not to be named "so the Chavistas don't come for me."
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Girish Gupta, Mario Naranjo in Caracas, Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Jackie Frank and Sandra Maler)