CARACAS President Hugo Chavez's signature "Alo Presidente" TV show returned to Venezuelan screens on Sunday in the latest milestone of his recovery from cancer at the start of an election year.
The 57-year-old has been on television a lot in recent weeks, looking stronger and boasting a new head of hair as he hosted regional leaders in Caracas last month then made his first official foreign trip since having surgery last June.
But the formal relaunch of the program ("Hello President") - often hours-long folksy monologues that the socialist leader uses to tell stories, croon songs, announce the nationalization of companies and bait foes - will cheer his supporters ahead of the October 7 vote.
"Here we are in Alo Presidente! ... we have to coordinate a bit better," Chavez said after technical problems caused the audio to be cut for a few minutes at the start of the show.
The program is shown live on state media and is often broadcast from different locations around the country. Sunday's show was transmitted from the giant Petromonagas oil facility.
"The return of the weekly show, along with the president's visibly renewed hairline, suggests Chavez is recovering from his recent bout of cancer. Alo Presidente ... is much more than a chat show," said the UK-based LatinNews think tank.
"President Chavez has made more policy on the airwaves than he has in the council of ministers."
The show first aired in May 1999 and was last broadcast on June 5, 2011, just before Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba to remove a large malignant tumor from his pelvis. Officials have promised a new format for the program, including taking phone calls live from the public.
The recuperating president, who has no clear successor, has been sparing no effort or expense to demonstrate to supporters and detractors alike that he is ready to take on and win the toughest re-election campaign of his 13 years in power.
Details about his condition remain a closely guarded secret. Chavez says he is fully cured after four chemotherapy sessions, although experts say it is too soon to make such a call.
Rumors about his health persist, and the coming election battle will be unlike any that the usually garrulous, man-of-the-people Chavez has fought before.
Where once he would wade into crowds, his doctors will now try to keep him on a tighter rein and he will have to make more of his increasingly lengthy television appearances, including the re-launched "Alo Presidente."
Recent surveys by two local pollsters show six in 10 Venezuelans believe he is in full recovery. Supporters hope the return of his Sunday broadcast will help banish the image of a weakened candidate from the public's mind.
A newly united opposition coalition is set to hold primaries next month to select a single candidate who will face Chavez at the ballot in October, which is forecast to be a close race.
Chavez hopes to tip the scales in his favor through big increases in state spending on social programs for the poor, including house-building, and putting to work the formidable national electoral machinery of his ruling Socialist Party.
(Editing by Eric Beech)