CARACAS President Hugo Chavez and his government have been "playing" with Venezuelans by not giving timely information about his cancer, or advance warning of his surprise homecoming, a leading opponent said on Monday.
As red-shirted Chavez supporters rejoiced in Caracas at his overnight return from Cuba after cancer treatment on the Caribbean island, Venezuela's opposition scrambled to adjust to this latest twist in the zig-zagging presidential health drama.
"The president has no right to govern from a foreign city ... he's done the right thing by coming back," Antonio Ledezma, a hard-line veteran Chavez opponent who won the mayorship of metropolitan Caracas in 2008 elections, told Reuters.
Ledezma slammed what he called the secrecy with which the Chavez government has handled the health crisis.
Sparse official medical updates have been drip-fed through state media and no date had been given for his return.
"The president needs to talk straight and play clean with Venezuelans, which he isn't doing at the moment," he said.
In the largely Catholic country, where wishing ill-health or even the death of someone is frowned upon, opposition leaders have taken care to offer sympathy to Chavez and his family to avoid accusations of taking advantage of misfortune.
Ledezma was no exception, wishing him a fast recovery.
It has been nearly a month since Chavez dropped out of sight while visiting Havana, reappearing last week to somberly announce he had undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.
Speculation had swirled that his recovery might keep him out of Venezuela for weeks and even months, stoking the volatile politics of the OPEC oil producer ahead of a keenly awaited 2012 presidential election.
"HURTING THE COUNTRY"
Chavez surprised Venezuelans by returning to Caracas early on Monday on a night flight from Havana.
Ledezma also accused the country's electoral authorities, which are seen by opponents and analysts as pro-Chavez, of dragging their feet over fixing a date for next year's vote.
"They're playing with uncertainty and that's also hurting the country," said the mayor, who had his funding for the metropolitan area slashed by Chavez after his mayoral win.
"They shouldn't be playing with Venezuelans' destiny," Ledezma added, recalling that senior Chavez allies initially strenuously denied he had cancer and badgered and insulted journalists who asked about the president's illness.
Critics also have been rankled because Chavez, who has dominated Venezuela's politics since 1999 and carved out a role as an international standard-bearer of leftist anti-Americanism, was treated in communist Cuba.
"Venezuela needs a good doctor, but it's not exactly Fidel Castro," Ledezma said.
That complaint echoed those of other opponents who say Chavez has wedded his country too closely to cash-strapped Cuba led by Fidel and Raul Castro.
Ledezma said even before Chavez's health problems that Venezuela's opposition was focused on choosing a unity candidate to run against him in 2012, at a time when polls showed national problems were draining government support.
"What would be best for Venezuela is for the president to get better and participate as a candidate," Ledezma said.
"The way out is elections," he added, presenting the coming vote as the best cure for Venezuela's multiple current woes of rising crime, unemployment and persisting poverty.
(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Paul Simao)