WASHINGTON DC, February 18, 2013 – Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez returns to Caracas after a 10-week absence amid questions of whether he is healthy enough to continue as president and who was really running the country in his absence.
The first official news of Chavez’s return was a message on his Twitter feed just after 4 a.m. local time Monday. After remaining silent since traveling to Cuba for cancer treatment on November 1, Chavez tweeted “We have retuned to the Venezuelan homeland. Thank you God! Thank you beloved country! We will continue treatment here.” In another tweet, he thanks Fidel, Raul Castro, and the entire Cuban people.
Venezuelan state television confirmed that Chavez arrived at 2:30 a.m. Monday and was taken to Carlos Arevalo military hospital in Caracas to continue cancer treatment. The Chavez government did not release pictures or video of the military leader.
Chavez had been in Cuba for over 10 weeks, where he underwent surgery for an undisclosed type of cancer. The Venezuelan leader departed for Cuba on December 10 and has not spoken in public since. The Venezuelan government says talking is difficult at the moment because Chavez is using a tracheal tube to breathe.
Chavez has undergone four surgeries since his diagnosis was made public in 2011, and government has remained tight-lipped about exactly what type of cancer Chavez is dealing with.
The return comes after the February 15 government release of the first photographs of Chavez in over two months. In them, Chavez is shown with his daughters in a hospital bed, bloated, and holding up a newspaper with the date (Feb. 14, 2013) in a crude, if not characteristically theatrical, proof of life.
International and national observers see Chavez’s abrupt return to Venezuela as an answer to growing doubt about his ability to rule the country and questions about who was making day-to-day decisions while he convalesced in Cuba.
Due to his absence, Chavez, who won a third six-year term in October 2012, was not inaugurated as president in a ceremony originally scheduled for January. While opponents argued that the Venezuelan constitution required the president to be physically in the country in order to be sworn in, the Venezuelan Supreme Court— stacked with Chavez supporters— ruled that he was not required to take the oath of office before beginning his term as president.
During his absence, vice president Nicolás Maduro devalued the bolivar, the national currency, from 4.30 bolivares to the dollar to 6.30. Despite assurances that the devaluation would not cause inflation, prices have gone up and Venezuela is facing food shortages, political division, and rampant violence.
While supporters danced and chanted in the streets in front of the hospital where Chavez was taken and in Caracas’ Plaza Bolivar, opponents and commentators are not sure how effective Chavez’s return will be in calming doubts and stabilizing the country.
Many speculate that Chavez’s health may not be as improved as his return to Venezuela may imply. The lack of information about what type of cancer Chavez is facing and his prognosis makes it difficult to understand exactly what is behind Chavez’s return. Nevertheless, speculation has grown about the gravity of his illness and whether he will be able to remain in power. Under the Venezuelan constitution, once a president dies or steps down, national elections must be held within 30 days.
Others suggest that Chavez’s return is meant to consolidate power for those who will remain, namely vice president Maduro, who Chavez named as his successor before his departure in December.
It remains to be seen what Chavez’s return will ultimately mean to Venezuela. What is clear by his theatrical “comeback” and the reaction of his supporters is that Chavez and his government have not lost their penchant for creating a spectacle.
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