CARACAS Of many surreal moments in the life and times of Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant Venezuelan leader's encounter with a puppet of himself this week was one of the wackiest.
Despite his convalescence from cancer surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy, the 57-year-old Chavez has since the start of October been hitting the air-waves like the old days, with phone-ins to state TV any time from dawn to midnight.
So when a supporter produced a life-sized puppet of the 'Comandante' on state TV, Chavez enthusiastically called in for the third time that day and was expounding on indigenous land rights when, embarrassingly, the puppet's trousers fell down.
"Tie them up, brother! You can't let Chavez's trousers fall down," he laughed in a clip (tinyurl.com/6hgnf37) that naturally has been a hit in cyber-space.
To supporters, the incident showed his sense of humor. To detractors, it was buffoonery unbefitting of a president. The wider message from his return to the air-waves was clear: Chavez's energy-levels and omnipresence are returning.
"It's not time to die, it's time to live! To those who want me dead, I tell them that soon my return will be complete," Chavez said in what has become a daily mantra.
Having disappeared from public view for several weeks in June, when he had a cancerous tumor removed in Cuba, Chavez first returned to Venezuela with a drastically curtailed lifestyle, serious demeanor and sporadic public appearances.
His illness, and the specter of his disappearance from the stage he has dominated since taking power in 1999, turned Venezuelan politics upside down heading into an election year.
But more than three months on, Chavez says four rounds of chemotherapy have been successful and tests he is due to take in Cuba this weekend will declare him cancer-free.
He clearly feels upbeat, re-energized -- and desperate to show it. Yet cancer experts say it takes several years before anyone can be confident they have beaten the disease.
"If you were my patient, and you said you had just finished chemotherapy two weeks ago and you were cured, I would say that is absolutely ridiculous," said a U.S. specialist, who asked not to be named. "It is much too early to say."
RAP AND RHETORIC
As well as the regular phone-ins, Chavez has in recent days been hosting events at his Miraflores presidential palace, including the launch of a coalition he hopes will propel him to re-election in an October 2012 vote.
At that event, he briefly danced a rap with young Venezuelan singers and then chaired an hours-long meeting -- his longest public showing since the surgery in Havana.
Pushing a message that he remains firmly in control of government, Chavez is also back to personally receiving visiting dignitaries. In the last week, he has hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to rail against U.S. and Israeli policies and signed a clutch of oil deals with Russian deputy prime minister Igor Sechin.
While there has been plenty of laughter in the charismatic Chavez's latest appearances, the tough streak that has polarized Venezuela and made him one of the world's most controversial figures has also re-emerged.
Famous for exclaiming "Expropriate it!" on live TV as he directed ministers to take over lands and businesses, Chavez has been at it again, showing there will be no let-up in his drive to create a socialist economy.
"It's a disaster. We're going to nationalize it," he proclaimed of a local ferry company accused of running a shoddy service to Margarita island in the Caribbean.
He also took aim at the idyllic Los Roques archipelago, warning homeowners that they had acquired property illegally -- "they privatized it ... the high bourgeoisie" -- so the state would soon be moving in.
With the opposition gearing up for a primary election early next year to choose a presidential candidate against Chavez, he has also returned to his vituperative rhetoric against them.
"They will never return," Chavez repeats, time-after-time, painting all opposition candidates as representatives of a tainted "bourgeois" elite that abandoned Venezuela's poor when they ruled in the past and are beholden to U.S. interests.
"He's back with a vengeance -- projecting himself across the nation at all hours of night and day," said a European diplomat in Caracas. "It will be interesting to see if he can keep up these energy levels for long."
Usually keen to stay in the public spotlight, Chavez does however plan this weekend to disappear again to Cuba, where he is guaranteed absolute privacy and secrecy during medical treatment.
Assuring supporters his Cuba visit will give him a clean bill of health, Chavez also promised to be firmly on the election trail by the end of the year.
Aides, perhaps more realistic than their boss, are conceding that the 2012 re-election bid will rely heavily on "virtual" rather than physical campaigning by Chavez.
As well as his famous TV and radio monologues, the Venezuelan leader is also now an accomplished and widely-followed Twitter user at @chavezcandanga.
"We beat Argentina! Long live the fatherland!" he tweeted enthusiastically this week minutes after Venezuela's shock first win in a soccer World Cup qualifier against Argentina.
(Editing by Daniel Bases and Kieran Murray)