Ailing Chavez returns to Venezuela from Cuba

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Posted: Monday, February 18, 2013 9:41 am

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela early Monday after more than two months of medical treatment in Cuba following cancer surgery, his government said, and his supporters staged upbeat street celebrations to welcome him home while he was being treated at Caracas' military hospital.

Chavez's return was announced in a series of three messages on his Twitter account, the first of them reading: "We've arrived once again in our Venezuelan homeland. Thank you, my God!! Thank you, beloved nation!! We will continue our treatment here."

They were the first messages to appear on Chavez's Twitter account since Nov. 1.

"I'm clinging to Christ and trusting in my doctors and nurses," Chavez said in another tweet. "Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!"

Chavez also thanked Fidel and Raul Castro, who have overseen his treatment in Cuba, and thanked his country's people "for so much love."

Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on television that Chavez arrived at 2:30 a.m. and was taken to the Dr. Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital in Caracas, where he will continue his treatment.

Chavez's announced return to Caracas came less than three days after the government released the first photos of the president in more than two months, showing images of him smiling alongside his daughters. The government didn't release any images of Chavez upon his arrival in Caracas.

"We're very happy," Maduro said. He said he had accompanied the president on the trip, along with Chavez's daughter Rosa, his brother Adan and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.

The vice president said that Chavez has been in a "continuous battle" and that additional details will be provided about his condition later.

Chavez supporters celebrated his return in downtown Caracas, chanting his name and holding photos of the president in Bolivar Plaza. A man holding a megaphone boomed: "Our commander has returned!"

Supporters also celebrated outside the hospital, where a sign atop the building is adorned with a photo of Chavez. They held up a flag and a poster showing the president, and chanted: "We're all Chavez!"

Many in Cuba were taken by surprise by the news and wondered what it could mean about his health, details of which have been a closely guarded secret. The island nation depends on Venezuela for a steady flow of oil shipments.

"Oh my!" exclaimed Mirta Blanco, a 67-year-old retiree. "This could be good or it could be bad. I hope he's truly getting better, but I doubt it because what he has is irreversible. Maybe they sent him back to die. I think that's going to be his exit. It's huge news, but I think it's terrible."

There was no mention of his departure in morning newspapers, but Cuban state television called it one of two "events loaded with emotion for Latin America," along with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's re-election win on Sunday.

In a letter to Chavez that was read on Cuban state TV and radio, retired leader Fidel Castro said he was pleased that Chavez was able to return home.

"You learned much about life, Hugo, during those difficult days of suffering and sacrifice," Castro wrote. "Now that we will no longer have the privilege of receiving news of you every day, we will return to the kind of (written) correspondence we have used for years."

The government didn't explain why Chavez made his surprise return on Monday. Government officials have in recent weeks said that it wasn't clear when the president's medical team would allow him to return to Venezuela, though they had said they hoped it would be soon.

After the return announcement, state television played upbeat music from last year's presidential campaign, repeating the lyrics "Chavez, heart of the nation!"

The 58-year-old president hasn't spoken publicly since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10. He underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery on Dec. 11, and the government says that he is now breathing through a tracheal tube that makes talking difficult.

He has been receiving cancer treatment in Cuba on-and-off since June 2011. Chavez has said he has had tumors removed from his pelvic region and has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Neither he nor his government have revealed the type of cancer he has nor the exact location of the tumors.

Chavez was re-elected to a new six-year term in October, and his inauguration had been scheduled for Jan. 10 but was indefinitely postponed by lawmakers due to his condition after the surgery, which the government has described as delicate.

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Associated Press journalists Vicente Marquez in Caracas and Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap

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