President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela on Monday after more than two months of treatment in Cuba following cancer surgery, his government said, triggering street celebrations by supporters who welcomed him home while he remained out of sight at Caracas' military hospital.
Chavez's return was announced in a series of three messages on his Twitter account, the first of them reading: "We've arrived once again in our Venezuelan homeland. Thank you, my God!! Thank you, beloved nation!! We will continue our treatment here."
They were the first messages to appear on Chavez's Twitter account since Nov. 1.
"I'm clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses," another tweet on Chavez's account said. "Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!"
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on television that Chavez arrived at 2:30 a.m. and was taken to the Dr. Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital in Caracas, where he will continue his treatment.
Chavez's announced return to Caracas came less than three days after the government released the first photos of the president in more than two months, showing him looking bloated and smiling alongside his daughters. The government didn't release any additional images of Chavez upon his arrival in Caracas, and unanswered questions remain about where he stands in a difficult and prolonged struggle with an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer.
Chavez was re-elected to a new six-year term in October, and his inauguration, originally scheduled for Jan. 10, was indefinitely postponed by lawmakers in a decision that the Supreme Court upheld despite complaints by the opposition. Some speculated that with Chavez back, he could finally be sworn in.
Government officials didn't address that possibility.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas broke into song on television early Friday, exclaiming: "He's back, he's back!"
"Bravo," Villegas said, before state television employees joined him in the studio clapping and celebrating.
A giant inflated Chavez doll was placed beside a corner of the National Assembly building.
Villegas reiterated in an interview with Venezuelan broadcaster Union Radio that Chavez is going through a "difficult, hard and complex" recovery process, and that his return doesn't change the "difficult circumstances he has been in."
The vice president later presided over a televised Cabinet meeting at the presidential palace, though he didn't offer additional details about Chavez. "He will live and he will triumph," Maduro said at the end of the meeting, while on television an image of Chavez's face was superimposed on the oval-shaped table.
Hundreds of Chavez supporters celebrated his return in downtown Caracas, chanting his name and holding photos of the president in Bolivar Plaza.
Fireworks exploded in some parts of Caracas while the president's followers celebrated.
Dozens of supporters gathered outside the hospital, where a sign atop the building is adorned with a photo of Chavez. Wearing the red T-shirts of Chavez's socialist movement, they chanted: "He's back!" As cars passed, drivers honked in support.
"I want to see my president," said Alicia Morroy, a seamstress who stood outside the hospital on the verge of tears. "I've missed him a lot because Chavez is the spirit of the poor."
Six hospital employees who were asked about the president said they hadn't seen him. Yusmeli Teran, a waitress who serves food to patients, told The Associated Press that the area where Chavez was being treated on the 9th floor is a restricted area guarded by police and soldiers. "No one has seen him at all," she said.
Chavez's precise condition and the sort of cancer treatments he is undergoing remain a mystery, and speculation has grown recently that he may not be able to stay on as president.
Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the Colombian League Against Cancer in Bogota, Colombia, said that given the government's accounts that Chavez is undergoing "complex" treatment, he thinks he likely will have to step down.
"Unfortunately, the cancer he has isn't going to go away, and he's returning to continue his battle. But I think he's conscious that he isn't going to win his fight against cancer, as much as he'd like to win it," Castro told the AP in a telephone interview.
Based on the government's accounts, doctors must have performed a tracheotomy on Chavez, cutting an opening in his windpipe to facilitate breathing, according to Dr. Jose Silva, a pulmonary specialist and president of the Venezuela Pulmonology Society. Silva said he thinks Chavez is breathing with the help of a ventilator through a tube attached to his windpipe.
Patients with breathing problems often require a tracheotomy to avoid damage to the vocal chords when a ventilator is used for an extended period.
The Venezuelan Constitution says that if a president dies or steps down, a new vote must be called and held within 30 days. Chavez raised that possibility before he left for Cuba in December by saying that if necessary, Maduro should run in a new vote to replace him.
Chavez's return could be used to give a boost to his would-be successor and gain time to "consolidate his alternative leader" ahead of a possible new presidential vote this year, said Luis Vicente Leon, a Venezuelan pollster and political analyst.
Maduro and other Cabinet ministers held hands and prayed in a televised gathering on Monday night where a priest and a minister offered words of thanks for Chavez's return.
In a letter to Chavez that was read on Cuban state TV and radio, retired leader Fidel Castro said he was pleased that Chavez was able to return home.
"You learned much about life, Hugo, during those difficult days of suffering and sacrifice," Castro wrote.
Venezuela's opposition, which has strongly criticized what it calls the undue influence of Cuba's leaders during Chavez's long absence, responded to the news saying that it's natural for the president to be back in his own country and that creating a "spectacle" with his return serves no useful purpose.
"The government should tell the truth and dedicate itself to working to confront Venezuelans' serious problems," the opposition coalition said in a statement. It cited problems such as violent crime, food shortages and soaring inflation.
The 58-year-old president hasn't spoken publicly since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10. He underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery on Dec. 11, and the government says that he is now breathing through a tracheal tube that makes talking difficult.
Associated Press journalists Anne-Marie Garcia and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, and Vicente Marquez in Caracas contributed to this report.
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