'He's back!' Chavez in Venezuela after cancer surgery

CARACAS (AFP) - President Hugo Chavez surprised and in many cases delighted Venezuelans by returning home on Monday, albeit to an uncertain future, ending a more than two-month absence in Cuba for cancer treatment.

Even as passionate Chavez supporters took to the streets in noisy celebration, and foreign dignitaries congratulated Mr Chavez and urged him to rest, the next step for the oil-rich country remained unclear.

It was not immediately known when, if at all, Mr Chavez would be sworn in by the Supreme Court to begin the new term he won in elections late last year.

A Supreme Court source said the tribunal is ready and waiting for the go-ahead from Mr Chavez and his medical team. The ceremony does not have to be public, the source said, suggesting it could be done with Chavez lying on his back in a hospital bed.

Indeed, as soon as he arrived Mr Chavez was hospitalised again for more treatment. He has undergone surgery four times since mid 2011.

Mr Chavez announced his return on Twitter - he has nearly four million followers - and his arrival at Caracas airport was not broadcast on TV.

That is unusual in this country he so thoroughly dominates both politically and personally.

"We have arrived again in our Venezuelan homeland," Mr Chavez wrote. "Thank you, God. Thank you, my beloved people. We will continue my treatment here." Chanting and banner-waving Mr Chavez supporters gathered outside his hospital and his supporters danced and sang in the city's central Plaza Bolivar.

Venezuelans had neither seen nor heard from him since he left for Cuba Dec 10 for a fourth round of cancer surgery, although on Friday photos of a bedridden but smiling Chavez were shown on television.

The government said it was hard for him to speak because has been fitted with a tracheal tube, due to a post-operative respiratory infection. Mr Chavez was first diagnosed with cancer in mid 2011.

Government updates on his condition have been sketchy, fuelling speculation that the president was worse off than officials admit.

The government had never said what kind of cancer he had nor when he might return home. Now, seemingly out the blue, Mr Chavez is back.

The most visible face of the Latin American left, the garrulous populist is a thorn in the side of Washington for his alignment of oil-rich Venezuela with nations such as Iran, Syria and Cuba.

Among throngs of cheering supporters Mauro Delgado, an Ecuadoran taxi driver who has lived in Caracas for 34 years, declared: "If God is keeping him alive it must be for something." From Cuba, Fidel Castro hailed his long-time friend's return, saying a long and anxious wait is over for the Venezuelan people thanks to Chavez's "stunning physical stamina and the total dedication of the doctors." Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, himself re-elected on Sunday and a close Chavez ally, jokingly said he had received congratulations from Mr Chavez.

"I really, really appreciate your congratulations, Commander Chavez, but I am angry. Forget about me and get some rest," Mr Correa said. "Venezuela, your beloved Latin America and we, your friends, all need you." The 58-year-old Mr Chavez, who has been in power for more than 14 years, had declared himself free of cancer after earlier rounds of surgery and went on to win another six year term in elections last October.

But he later suffered a relapse and after the latest surgery on Dec 11 in Havana he was too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on Jan 10.

The inauguration has been postponed indefinitely, and Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked political heir, has essentially been running Venezuela in Mr Chavez's absence.

Conservative opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Mr Chavez defeated in October, tweeted: "May the return of president mean that Mr Maduro and the ministers will get down to work. There are many, many problems to resolve." Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said uncertainty remains over whether illness will force Mr Chavez to step down and call early elections.

Throughout his illness, Mr Chavez has avoided relinquishing power, and his aides haven't given no hint he plans to now.

But with his return, support for Mr Maduro will grow even more, Mr Leon said.

A poll released on Sunday said that if elections were held now between Maduro and Capriles, the former would win by 14 percentage points.

In his Twitter message, Mr Chavez also expressed his gratitude to Cuba and its leaders for their assistance in his medical treatment.

"Thank you Fidel, Raul and everybody in Cuba," he wrote, referring to Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro. "I am holding on to Jesus Christ ... As always, see you in victory. We will live and we will win."