Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived back home early Friday after 10 days of medical treatment in Cuba, but his failure to attend a regional meeting in Brazil raised new questions about his health.
State television showed Chavez arriving at Caracas' airport and walking down the steps from the presidential jet wearing a track suit. He smiled and laughed heartily as he chatted with Vice President Nicolas Maduro and members of his Cabinet.
Chavez, who has been fighting an unspecified type of cancer during the past year and half, didn't explain why he skipped a Friday meeting in Brasilia with leaders of the South American trade bloc Mercosur. The Brazilian government said Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez represented his country at the meeting — the first since Venezuela became a full member.
Chavez traveled to Cuba on the night of Nov. 27 after announcing plans to undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Havana. The Venezuelan leader has spent much of the past 18 months battling cancer in the pelvic area, and he said in July that tests had shown he was cancer-free.
While in Cuba, he kept a low profile and did not speak on television. Chavez last appeared publicly during a televised meeting Nov. 15 in Caracas, and his long absence renewed speculation among some Venezuelans that his health might be taking a turn for the worse.
Chavez appeared vigorous as he spoke on television upon his arrival at Caracas' airport after 2:30 a.m. Friday. He didn't mention his health. Chavez, who travels on a presidential plane, often arrives in Venezuela very late at night or early in the morning.
"I'm very happy, as you all can see, to be arriving here again," Chavez said. "Very happy."
Chavez noted that Thursday marked two months since his Oct. 7 re-election. Addressing Maduro and recalling other election victories, Chavez said: "Look at how we've come, Nicolas, from victory to victory."
Chavez hasn't given details recently about the hyperbaric oxygen treatment, during which patients breathe pure oxygen while in a pressurized, sealed chamber. The treatment's value is well-established for treating burns and some other medical conditions and for aiding wound healing and helping repair bone and tissue damaged by radiation treatments.
The 58-year-old president first underwent cancer surgery in Cuba in June 2011 and later underwent another surgery last February. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Hyperbaric oxygen is regularly used to treat infections that can develop after radiation treatment, said Dr. Igor Astsaturov, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist who is not involved in Chavez's treatment.
"I would speculate that this is not directly related to the cancer process itself but maybe an infectious complication of pelvic radiation," said Astsaturov, an assistant professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He said that such oxygen treatment "is used to treat infections but not tumors."
Throughout his treatments, Chavez has kept many details of his illness secret, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors that were removed.
Chavez said his departure from Cuba had been delayed by a conversation with Fidel Castro, with whom he had been discussing poetry and reciting verses.
The Venezuelan leader also referred to the country's upcoming state gubernatorial elections Dec. 16, saying: "We're eight days away from the next victory."
The government launched a hashtag phrase on Twitter, "BienvenidoComandante," or Welcome Commander, which became a top trending topic in the country Friday morning.
During Chavez's absence, the government had announced that the president appointed new ambassadors in various countries, and he released a couple of written statements. But no messages have been posted on Chavez's Twitter account since Nov. 1.
The uncertainty sparked a rally in Venezuelan government bonds during the past week as investors speculated about the possibility that Chavez's health might be worsening. Bond prices dipped after the president's return. Even as bond prices declined by as much as two percentage points Friday, though, they were still trading about 10 percentage points higher than when Chavez abruptly announced his return to Cuba on Nov. 27, said Russell Dallen, a securities trader at Caracas Capital Markets.
Despite the lack of information about Chavez's condition, some say they think Venezuelans haven't seemed particularly concerned lately.
"The country has grown used to his prolonged disappearances," Venezuelan journalist Argelia Rios said in a column before Chavez's return that was published Friday in the newspaper El Universal. "What's striking ... isn't the absence of the head of state, but rather the lack of interest surrounding his lengthy retreat."
Chavez's opponents have called for him to be more forthcoming about his condition and release a full medical report.
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and AP freelance video journalist Ricardo Nunes in Caracas contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap