'Happy' Venezuelans welcome back Chavez

2013-02-18 17:32

Caracas - President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela early on Monday after spending more than two months in Cuba for cancer surgery and treatment, announcing his surprise homecoming via Twitter.

"We have arrived again to the Venezuelan motherland," Chavez wrote. "Thank you, God. Thank you, my beloved people. We will continue my treatment here."

From the airport, he was taken to Carlos Avarela Military Hospital in Caracas where he will continue his medical treatment, said his son-in-law and Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro swiftly went on national television to declare that Venezuelans were "absolutely happy" to have the president back and promised an update on the state of his health later on Monday.

He also called on his countrymen to show solidarity with Chavez "without disturbing his calm".

The 58-year-old Chavez, who has been in power for more than 14 years, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011. After surgery and treatment he declared himself free of the disease and went on to win another term in elections last October.

Inauguration postponed

But he suffered a relapse, and after the latest surgery on 11 December in Havana he was still too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on 10 January.

The inauguration has been postponed indefinitely, and Maduro has essentially been running Venezuela in Chavez's absence.

There was no immediate word whether Chavez will now take his oath of office to end the political uncertainty which his illness has caused.

Opposition parties insist Chavez's term ended on 10 January and that if he cannot start a new one in person, an interim president should be named pending a decision on whether Chavez should be declared incapacitated, in which case a new election would be called quickly.

But throughout his illness, the firebrand leftist leader has refused to relinquish power, and the National Assembly had voted to grant him unlimited leave to undergo medical treatment outside of the country.

In his Twitter message, Chavez also expressed his gratitude to Cuba and its leaders for their assistance in his medical treatment.

Belief in God

"Thank you Fidel, Raul and everybody in Cuba," he wrote, referring to Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro. "And thank you, Venezuela, for so much love."

As before, he underscored his belief in God and hopes for complete recovery.

"I am holding on to Jesus Christ and trust my doctors and nurses," the president said. "As always, see you in victory. We will live and we will win."

On Friday, the Venezuelan government released the first post-operative photos of Chavez, giving Venezuelans the first glimpse of their leader since a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba.

The pictures show Chavez lying on his back in a Havana hospital, with his two eldest daughters at his side and leafing through Thursday's edition of the official Cuban newspaper Granma.

The four images broke a virtual news blackout for Chavez's countrymen, who have been living in limbo without their media-happy comandante - a populist firebrand who is the most visible face of the Latin American left and who has irked the United States by aligning himself with Iran, Syria and Cuba.

The government has never said where Chavez's cancer is located or how serious it was or is. And this has not changed with his return.

Just last Wednesday, Maduro said the president was undergoing "extremely tough and complex" treatment in the Cuban capital, declining to provide further details, but insisting that Chavez was facing his medical travails with a "fighting spirit".