CARACAS — Venezuela's ever-theatrical President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming from Cuba 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.
Elated 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.
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, punching a fist in the air as he emerged from his airplane.
"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.
CLASSIC CHAVEZ THEATER
Despite supporters' euphoria, 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 keep a low profile in Venezuela or even return to Cuba for further cycles of treatment.
While his homecoming did not show anything conclusive about his health, it does address complaints from critics that Chavez was flouting the constitution and risking national security by ruling from a hospital in a foreign country.
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. local 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. "We are delighted the president is home," Jaua said.
Many Venezuelans had thought Chavez's convalescence after two operations last month in Cuba -- one to remove a cancerous tumor -- would keep him in Havana for weeks, 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."
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."
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