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Thousands celebrate Chávez’s return to Caracas

Political future uncertain after cancer surgery

BACK IN PUBLIC EYE Although he appeared strong and vibrant, Venezuela’s president revealed that he had been in intensive care in Cuba. BACK IN PUBLIC EYE
Although he appeared strong and vibrant, Venezuela’s president revealed that he had been in intensive care in Cuba.
By Ian James
Associated Press / July 5, 2011

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CARACAS - Hugo Chávez’s surprise return from Cuba after cancer treatment was a classic maneuver for a president who excels at showmanship. It also could give him a political boost as supporters rally around their ailing leader.

The 56-year-old president projected a strong, vibrant image as he stepped off a plane early yesterday. Smiling, he hugged his vice president, broke into song, and later raised a fist in triumph.

In the afternoon, he rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace. He led the crowd in singing the Venezuelan national anthem and addressed the crowd in his usual booming voice. State TV showed some in the crowd weeping at the sight of their “comandante.’’

“Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!’’ Chávez said. “Long live life! Long live Chávez!’’

Wearing fatigues and the red beret of his army days, Chávez revealed that he had been in intensive care in Cuba and held up a crucifix. “Christ is with us,’’ he said.

The crowd chanted: “Chávez won’t go!’’

Despite the confident image, doubts about his future reemerged as he suggested later in the day that he still isn’t ready for a full comeback.

He told state television by telephone that he doesn’t expect to attend celebrations today marking the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s independence from Spain. Normally, Chávez would be front and center at the patriotic event.

Still, for a president who knows how to command attention, his return sent a powerful message that he remains in control. During nearly a month in Cuba, uncertainty has swirled in Venezuela, both about how sick he is and what would happen if cancer were to force him from power.

The long-term political effects of fighting cancer for a leader who thrives on the spotlight remain unclear.

But Chávez will probably play up his plight to rally his movement as he looks ahead to 2012 elections, in which his allies say they are convinced he will still be their candidate.

Unanswered questions about Chávez’s health abound. He has said he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, and his foreign minister said it was extracted from the same part of the pelvic region where Chávez had an abscess removed in Cuba on June 11.

Chávez hasn’t said what type of cancer is involved nor whether he is receiving chemotherapy, radiation, or another treatment.

Vice President Elias Jaua denied that Chávez’s socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement is threatened and said Chávez “doesn’t need to go to the hospital at this time.’’

Chávez’s opponents have criticized the lack of details about his illness.

Leading opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said Chávez’s return puts an end to the “irregular situation’’ of having a president governing from Cuba, but he said much has yet to be explained.

“We don’t know exactly what the president’s illness is, what treatment he needs, and what consequences this treatment will bring,’’ Marquina said. “What we demand is greater responsibility, no only on the president’s part but by all of those high in the government, to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president’s real situation.’’

Chávez has been dominant in Venezuela during his 12 years in office, and his absence created a void that he clearly wanted to refill.

Chávez’s many comebacks have historically helped him energize his base. Nearly a decade ago, Chávez bounced back in triumph after a 2002 coup briefly ousted him.

A decade earlier, when he led his own failed coup in 1992, he said his objectives had not been reached “for now’’ - a hint of the come-from-behind presidential bid that would sweep him to power.

Chávez returned yesterday to a city of freshly painted murals bearing his face and those of the country’s 19th-century independence heroes. Yellow, blue, and red Venezuelan flags were everywhere downtown, fluttering from lamp posts and over doorways under sunny skies.

The mood among supporters was festive. Some acknowledged Chávez faces an uncertain future but said they felt hopeful and relieved, especially after seeing him looking much healthier than he did on TV several days ago.

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