CARACAS President Hugo Chavez has made a surprise return from Cuba where he underwent complex cancer surgery two months ago, but there is no word on whether he is fit enough to return to active rule of the South American OPEC nation.
Here are some key facts about Chavez:
* Born to a poor family in Venezuela's plains, or "llanos," on July 28, 1954, Chavez once aspired to be a painter and then a professional baseball player in the U.S. Major Leagues.
* His impoverished but happy childhood in rural Venezuela often feeds the folksy anecdotes he uses when talking about politics. Combined with formidable charisma, his humble roots have helped him forge a strong emotional connection with many of Venezuela's poor, who see him almost like one of the family.
* A former lieutenant colonel, Chavez spent much of his later military career conspiring with other leftist soldiers to overthrow the traditional political order.
* He led a 1992 coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez that failed but launched his political career. A brief speech while he was being led away to jail - wearing his trademark red beret - electrified many Venezuelans and propelled him toward the presidency as a populist leader.
* After being pardoned, Chavez toured the country before winning a 1998 election and taking office early the following year. For many poor voters, he symbolized a fresh start after decades of governments widely seen as self-serving and corrupt.
* Private media and business leaders remained staunchly against Chavez, however, and in 2002 a group of opposition politicians and dissident troops staged a coup. Chavez was arrested and flown to a military base on a Caribbean island.
* Two days later, loyal military officers and protests by supporters swept him back to power. Chavez accused the United States of being behind the putsch, and said he feared he was about to be killed. The drama of his return as president has since taken on almost religious overtones for some passionate "Chavistas."
* Chavez has enjoyed wide backing among the poor majority partly thanks to massive state spending to expand health and education programs, financed by income from oil exports. He has also cultivated support by confronting the United States, which he denounces as a decadent, war-mongering empire.
* Several times he has threatened to stop oil shipments to the United States - including when he accused then-U.S. President George W. Bush of backing the 2002 coup - but has never done so. The United States remains Venezuela's biggest oil export market, but Chavez has also increased fuel sales to China and anti-Western states such as Belarus, Iran and Syria.
* Inspired by his friend and mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez has taken Venezuela down an increasingly radical path, nationalizing much of the economy and running the government with a micro-managing - and many say autocratic - style.
* Opponents accuse him of repressing critics, squandering record oil revenues and scaring away investors by seizing assets ranging from shops and farms to multibillion-dollar refinery projects run by foreign energy companies.
* Chavez has a deliberately populist style, using colorful and strong language that draws on the macho culture of the "llanos" of his youth, and the barracks of his military career. Like Fidel Castro, he is known for long-winded televised speeches that often drag on late into the night. Last year he broke his own record by speaking for nearly 10 hours. Since his latest surgery in Cuba, however, Chavez has had trouble talking.
* Chavez announced in mid-2011 that he was being treated for cancer and has had four operations in Cuba since then. He has wrongly declared himself cured twice.
* Chavez won re-election in October last year with 55 percent of the vote but was unable to be sworn in for his new six-year term beginning on January 10. Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that he remained president, even from hospital.
* He flew back to Venezuela on Monday and went straight to a military hospital for continued treatment.
(Editing by James Dalgleish)