CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez made a theatrical return from Cuba on Friday after medical treatment, walking and joking in a first public appearance for three weeks that quashed rumors he may have been at death’s door.
“I’m happy and enthused to be back again,” Chavez said after flying in overnight to the delight of supporters.
“So, where’s the party?” Chavez joked, in festive mood as he chatted with ministers after walking unaided down the steps from his plane at the international airport outside Caracas.
The 58-year-old socialist leader has had three cancer operations in Cuba since mid-2011 and returned to Havana ten days ago to receive “hyperbaric oxygenation” - a treatment normally used to alleviate bone decay from radiation therapy.
But speculation was rife he may have suffered a recurrence of the disease.
One local journalist said he was confined to a wheelchair.
Earlier this year, Chavez declared himself “completely cured” and went on to comfortably win re-election in October.
Amid a barrage of rumors, officials had maintained his latest trip to Cuba was just a scheduled follow-up to the radiation therapy he underwent in the first half of 2012.
Supporters celebrated the return of the man who has dominated the South American OPEC nation since he first won election in 1998. He wore a multi-colored track suit and arrived with relatives and aides including vice president Nicolas Maduro.
“YEEESSSS!!!!,” tweeted Eva Golinger, an American-Venezuelan lawyer close to the Chavez government.
“Chavez is back and has shown up all the rumor-mongers, necrophiliacs, gossips and ill-thinkers. Welcome commander.”
On Friday, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper showed President Raul Castro bidding farewell to Chavez at Havana airport.
Chavez’s return gives him a week to campaign for Venezuela’s December 16 state elections, where the ruling Socialist Party is hoping to use the momentum of the presidential victory to win back some opposition-held governorships.
The opposition, however, is hoping that discontent with grassroots issues like crime, power-cuts and cronyism will enable it to at least hold the seven states it controls out of Venezuela’s 23.
Speculation is unlikely to end over Chavez’s health, given the scant details given by the government.
Doctors say hyperbaric oxygenation is a treatment normally given in different sessions over several months, meaning he could return again to Cuba soon.
They also say nobody can declare themselves completely cured of cancer until a couple of years have passed without a recurrence.
The president had dearly wanted to attend the Mercosur trade bloc summit in Brazil on Friday, to celebrate Venezuela’s entry, so his absence from that maintained a question mark over just how well he is.
Opponents criticize Chavez for secrecy over his health and preferring Cuban doctors to Venezuela.
He has chosen to be treated in Havana due to his friendship with Cuba’s past and present leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, plus the discretion he is guaranteed thanks to the Communist government’s strict controls on information.
Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana, Mario Naranjo in Caracas, Writing by Andrew Cawthorne Editing by W Simon