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Hugo Chavez's return ends 10-week absence from Venezuela

February 18, 2013|By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Ending a 10-week absence from Venezuela for cancer treatment, President Hugo Chavez finally returned from Cuba early Monday morning as the government planned welcoming celebrations in several cities.

Official word of his return to Caracas, the capital, came over Chavez’s Twitter account at 4 a.m., shortly after he had arrived and was admitted to the San Martin military hospital in the western part of the city. No photographs of Chavez were released. The messages were the first to come over his Twitter account since November.

PHOTOS: Hugo Chavez returns to Venezuela

Chavez's reported return did little to clarify his medical condition. Since being diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, he has undergone four surgeries including his most recent on Dec. 11 in Cuba. The precise type of cancer and its location have never been revealed.

Chavez's followers began assembling outside the military hospital in Monday's early hours, shortly after word went out that he had been admitted there.

The Venezuelan leader -- or people acting in his stead -- sent out three Twitter messages Monday morning, the first one saying: "We have arrived in the Venezuelan fatherland. Thanks to God. Thanks to my beloved country. Here we will continue treatment."

A separate message thanked Fidel and Raul Castro and the Cuban people for "so much love."

Fidel Castro, the retired Cuban leader, issued a statement wishing Chavez well on his return to Venezuela, saying that the cancer-stricken leader had "learned much about life" through his illness.

Venezuelan Communication Minister Ernesto Villegas went on the state VTV channel to announce that Chavez had entered the military hospital at 2:30 a.m. Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a TV interview that he is "very happy" that Chavez has returned and that he accompanied him on the trip home along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chavez family members.

Government sources said Chavez was still having difficulty speaking because of a respirator device in his throat, which he needed to breathe.

On Friday, the government released four photographs of Chavez smiling and reading a Cuban newspaper with his two daughters, the first proof of life of the 58-year-old leader since he left Venezuela for treatment in Cuba.

Last October, Chavez was elected for a fourth presidential term, but was unable to take the oath of office Jan. 10 because he was still recovering from surgery.

In what some experts said was in contradiction to the constitution, which specifies the president be present in Venezuela to be sworn in, the Supreme Court ruled that Chavez did not need to take the oath to start his new presidential term and that the inauguration could be postponed indefinitely.

Before leaving for Cuba, Chavez designated Maduro as his successor, a move that opposition figures also have called unconstitutional. The opposition has demanded, to no avail, that Chavez be examined by a nonpartisan medical team to ascertain whether he is fit to govern.

During Chavez’s absence, Maduro ordered a devaluation of the currency, the bolivar, from 4.30 to the dollar to 6.30. On the black market, however, a dollar is fetching as many as 20 bolivares.

Rumors are swirling in Venezuela that the government may apply official rationing measures to deal with increasing scarcities of basic foodstuffs including rice, beans, chicken and cooking oil.

Signs of a power vacuum are evident, according to some analysts, which may be a reason for Chavez’s return despite the chance that his cancer treatment and recovery in Cuba were not complete.

The country reportedly needs to make another oil-for-dollars deal with China to address a severe cash liquidity problem. So far, Venezuela has borrowed more than $39 billion in such deals, which in effect amount to future sales of oil.

The government was planning to convene major rallies in Caracas and other cities to celebrate Chavez’s return. A march of supporters to Plaza Bolivar in central Caracas was in the works.

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Mogollon reported from Caracas and Kraul from Barra de Navidad, Mexico.

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