|Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez smiles in between his daughters, Rosa Virginia (R) and Maria while recovering from cancer surgery in Havana in this photograph released by the Ministry of Information on February 15, 2013. (Reuters/Ministry of Information/Handout)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return from Cuba on Monday more than two months after surgery for cancer that has jeopardized his 14-year rule of the South American OPEC member.
The 58-year-old socialist leader underwent a six-hour operation in Cuba on December 11. He had not been seen or heard in public since then until photos were published of him on Friday.
"We have arrived back in the Venezuelan fatherland. Thanks, my God! Thanks, my beloved people! Here we will continue the treatment," Chavez said via Twitter after flying in.
There had been speculation Chavez was unwell enough to travel despite wanting to return for continued treatment for the disease he was first diagnosed with in mid-2011.
AT MILITARY HOSPITAL
But Vice-President Nicolas Maduro said Chavez flew in at about 2.30 a.m. local time (0700 GMT) from Havana and was in a military hospital in Caracas, where crowds were gathering.
His overnight arrival thrilled supporters in the nation of 29 million people, where his common touch and welfare policies have made him an idol to the poor.
"It's fabulous news, the best thing possible. Venezuela was waiting for him, everyone wants to see him. Welcome home! Thank God he's back!" Chavez's cousin, Guillermo Frias, told Reuters from the president's rural birthplace in Barinas state.
Fireworks could be heard going off in some Caracas neighborhoods as news spread and celebrations began among 'Chavistas'.
It was unclear whether Chavez hopes to return to active rule, or will try to smooth a transition. He has named Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, as his preferred successor.
"I remain attached to Christ and trusting in my nurses and doctors. Onwards to victory forever! We will live and we will conquer!" Chavez also Tweeted, adding his thanks to Cuban leaders Raul and Fidel Castro for his treatment there.
Ministers were jubilant, one singing "He's back, he's back!" live on state TV.
Chavez's arrival implied some improvement in his condition, at least enough to handle a flight of several hours.
But there was no new information on his precise condition and aides have emphasized in recent days his state remains delicate. "It's a complex, difficult situation, but Chavez is battling ..., fighting for his life," Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said over the weekend, describing a recent visit to Chavez.
The December operation in Havana was his fourth for the cancer first detected in his pelvic area in June 2011.
On Friday, the government published photos showing him lying in hospital. Officials said he was breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.
Chavez's pre-dawn return was a typical surprise move for the former soldier whose political rule has combined constant theatrics with thundering anti-U.S. rhetoric, tough treatment of opponents and lavish spending of oil revenues on the poor.
Opponents have been decrying government secrecy over Chavez's condition, and some have called for a formal declaration that he is unfit to rule. That scenario would trigger a new presidential election within 30 days, probably between Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
After winning re-election in October last year, and wrongly declaring himself cured, Chavez was unable to attend his own swearing-in ceremony in January. To the fury of his foes, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that he remained president and could be sworn in at a later date.
That could now happen at the military hospital.
"Now the president is back, there can be no doubt about the democratic institutions working in Venezuela," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said.
"There were some who dream of unseating Chavez and the revolution, but here we always said Chavez is the president elected and re-elected by will of the Venezuelan people."
Chavez's return will eclipse national debate over a recent devaluation of the local currency. It has proved highly popular among Venezuelans but opposition parties see it as evidence of economic incompetence by the government.
Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.