President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return to Caracas yesterday after more than two months away from Venezuela.
The recently re-elected premier has been undergoing treatment following surgery for cancer in Cuba in December. There had been suggestions he may never return home.
A large crowd of supporters gathered outside the San Martín military hospital in western Caracas yesterday after the government confirmed his return in the early hours of the morning.
In the Plaza Bolívar, the city’s central plaza, a group of “Chavistas” celebrated. “It’s the greatest, most beautiful thing that could have happened,” said Ovaldo Torrealba. “Chavez is back in our country, Chavez is home.”
The Venezuelan leader – who has had four rounds of cancer surgery in Cuba after first revealing he had cancer in June 2011 – returned at 2:30am yesterday, accompanied by acting president Nicolas Maduro, who Mr Chavez, 58, named as his successor if he did not return to power.
Mr Chavez tweeted after landing in Venezuela: “We have arrived in the Venezuelan fatherland. Thank you, my God! Thank you, my beloved people. We continue the treatment here.”
Car horns and fireworks were heard in Caracas as the news spread of the leader’s return.
Mr Chavez was re-elected to a new six-year term in October. His inauguration, originally scheduled for 10 January, was indefinitely postponed by lawmakers in a decision that the Supreme Court upheld despite complaints by the opposition. Some speculated that Mr Chavez could now finally be sworn in.
The Venezuelan Constitution says that if a president dies or steps down, a new vote must be called and held within 30 days. Mr Chavez raised that possibility before he left for Cuba in December by saying that, if necessary, Mr Maduro should run in a new vote and take his place.
Yesterday outside the military hospital where Mr Chavez was staying, trucks with enormous sound systems blasted out songs from the president’s recent re-election campaign, while hundreds of supporters, dressed in the red of Mr Chavez’s political party, danced and chanted in the street.
Juan Roman, who was among the crowd at the hospital entrance, said: “We waited two months for our commander, but that’s very little. I could have waited ten times that”.
“I cried from happiness when I heard,” said Campoverde Bolívar. “I have been here since five o’clock this morning to show support for our commander.”
Mr Chavez’s reappearance comes after the first photographs of him for two months were released on state TV last Friday. The pictures, taken by his son-in-law and cabinet member Jorge Arreaza, showed the president lying in a hospital bed in Havana, smiling and reading the previous day’s newspaper.
But in other parts of Caracas, the mood was less jubilant.
In Altamira, one of the city’s more affluent districts, local Javier Iglesias said: “We saw the photo of him with his daughters on Friday so we knew something was going to happen, but this was a big surprise.
“To be honest there has been so much confusion and so many lies that I can’t believe that Chavez is back until he presents himself to the public.”
And in the Los Palos Grandes district, one of the city’s richest, none of the celebratory car horns could be heard.
“It’s a comedy,” said Luigi, a businessman who lives in the area. “They kicked him out of Cuba because they don’t want him to die there. I don’t think he’ll leave the hospital, he has come back to Venezuela to die.
“At this point Chavez is considered a saint. He’s more of a pope than a political leader now. This illness … has turned him into someone that the people think can perform miracles.”