* Euphoric "Chavistas" pour into streets
* Hundreds gather at Caracas hospital
* President returned overnight from Cuba
By Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Feb 18 Dancing, singing and lighting
fireworks, thousands of ecstatic supporters of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez celebrated their hero's homecoming from
cancer surgery in Cuba.
Such was the party atmosphere outside the military hospital
in Caracas where Chavez was taken on Monday that security staff
had to appeal for calm so as not to disturb other patients.
"I love the president with all my soul, thanks be to God
almighty for bringing him back to me," said Alexandra Viloria,
43, clutching a doll of Chavez and wearing the red colors of his
Socialist Party in a throng outside the hospital gate.
His fans' joy was unbridled even though Chavez remains in a
grave state and there is speculation he may have come home to
resign and arrange a smooth transition within his ruling
Socialist Party rather than return to active rule.
While hundreds went to the hospital, in a shabby part of
Caracas near a hillside shanty-town, many more poured into
public squares across Venezuela as state media whipped up the
atmosphere with live coverage.
Ministers urged Venezuelans to fly national flags.
"HE'S BACK! HE'S BACK!"
Though despised as a clownish dictator by many opponents,
and resented by private businessmen for his aggressive
nationalizations and currency controls, Chavez is adored by many
in the South American nation of 29 million people.
In his 14-year rule, he has constantly played up his own
humble roots from birth in a rural shack, used common and folksy
language in his famously long-winded speeches, and channeled oil
revenues into welfare projects in neglected shanty-towns.
Opponents charge he should have done far better for the
poor, given the OPEC member's unprecedented bonanza in oil
revenues. But they have been unable to break his emotional bond
with a large number of Venezuelans and Chavez comfortably won
re-election last year.
Breaking the news of Chavez's return live on state
television before dawn, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas
even burst into song, joyously chanting "He's back! He's back!"
- a slogan used after the president survived a brief coup in
Some scribbled the famous chant on buses in Caracas.
A huge banner of Chavez's face adorned one wall of the
manila-colored military hospital. Its bustling surroundings
contrasted with the leafy peace of Havana's Cimeq hospital where
Chavez had been treated for the last two months.
"I've been here since 5 this morning to support the
president. He is the hope of our people," said William Pelaque,
37, outside. "The squalid ones are running scared now," he
added, using Chavez's term for his opponents.
One elderly man came with a tray of flowers and an image of
the infant Jesus to leave outside.
One of the reasons Chavez has sought treatment in Cuba since
his cancer was first detected in mid-2011 was to limit leaks of
information to the media. That may be harder now he is back in
gossip-crazy Venezuela rather than tightly controlled Cuba.
There was a relatively muted reaction from opposition
parties, who have long struggled to match Chavez's charisma and
win significant support among the poor.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who will probably face
Vice President Nicolas Maduro in a presidential election should
Chavez not recover, welcomed him home.
But Capriles also took a swipe at Maduro and other senior
ministers, whom he accuses of neglecting Venezuela's myriad
daily problems - from crime to potholes and price rises - during
the all-consuming focus on Chavez's health.
"I hope the president's return means Mr. Maduro and the
ministers get to work, there are thousands of problems to fix,"
"I hope the president's return is definitive and means the
immediate halting of the 'red package'," he added, using a
mocking reference to recent economic measures including a
devaluation of the bolivar currency.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition also sniped at the
"spectacle" around Chavez's return, saying it would hardly help
Chavez's allies and fellow leftist leaders around Latin
America sent best wishes for his recovery.
But there was an affectionate rebuke from Ecuador's
newly-reelected president, Rafael Correa, over Chavez's quick
congratulation for his sweeping re-election on Sunday.
"That's President Chavez, incorrigibly stubborn. He should
be resting!" he told Colombian TV.
"I thank Commander Chavez for his congratulation, but I'm
angry - forget (the Ecuador election), go and rest, and get
better as soon as possible. Venezuela, his beloved Latin
America, and his friends - we all need him."