CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez received a hero’s welcome as he rallied thousands of supporters upon his return to Venezuela, vowing to beat cancer after undergoing surgery in Cuba.
Wearing the combat fatigues and red beret of his army days, Chavez projected strength as he spoke from the balcony of the presidential palace on Monday, waving to the crowd below and raising a fist.
The charismatic president, whose three-week absence spurred a flurry of rumors, delivered a signature performance: the booming voice, the socialist-inspired rhetoric as well as the visceral connection with his audience that inspired rock concert-like frenzy.
“We will also win this battle for life,” Chavez said. “We will live! We will be victorious!” Nonetheless, signs of Chavez’s fragile health peeked through the stagecraft.
At one point, the 56-year-old leader grimaced with apparent discomfort as he struggled to wave his country’s yellow, blue and red flag above his head. The flag ended up awkwardly draping over his scalp, until Chavez emerged with an embarrassed smile from the fabric.
About 30 minutes into the speech, one of his daughters stepped up to remind him of doctors’ orders that he not strain himself by speaking at his normal, marathon length.
“I shouldn’t be here for too long,” Chavez said. “This recovery process has to be carefully watched to the extreme.”
That mixture of bluster and vulnerability made for an attention-grabbing show, even for a president who knows how to command attention.
His surprise return in the wee hours of Monday morning was signature Chavez and sent a powerful message that he remains in control. While he was away for nearly a month in Cuba, uncertainty swirled in Venezuela, both about how sick he is and what would happen if cancer were to force him from power.
Chavez addressed those doubts head-on, providing more details about his illness as he addressed the crowd that radiated for blocks from the Miraflores Palace. He embraced two of his daughters on the balcony, where he was also joined by two of his grandchildren and his elder brother, Adan.
“Beloved Venezuelan people, I’m sure you understand perfectly the difficulties of this battle,” Chavez told the mass of supporters. “No one should believe that my presence here… means that we’ve won the battle.”
“No, we’ve begun to climb the hill,” he continued. “We’ve begun to beat the illness that was incubated inside my body. … My return has begun!”
Chavez revealed that he had been in intensive care for several days after his surgery in Cuba, and he held up a crucifix — the same one, he said, that he had with him after surviving a 2002 coup.
“Christ is with us,” he said.
The crowd below chanted: “Onward, commander!”
The long-term political impacts of cancer for a leader who thrives on the spotlight remain unclear. But Chavez will likely play up his plight to rally his movement as he looks ahead to 2012 elections, in which he’ll seek to extend his nearly 13-year-old administration. His allies say they are convinced he will still be their candidate.
Unanswered questions about Chavez’s health continue to abound, despite the details he offered in Monday’s speech. He told the multitude he underwent surgery in Cuba on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor, which his foreign minister said was extracted from the same part of the “pelvic region” where Chavez had an abscess removed nine days earlier.
Chavez hasn’t said what type of cancer is involved nor whether he is receiving chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments. Based on Chavez’s account, medical experts said it’s most likely he has colorectal cancer, but Chavez hasn’t confirmed that.
He told the crowd he’s been rising at 5 a.m., exercising and eating healthy foods such as yogurt. He also repeatedly noted that his doctors have told him to limit the length of his speeches.
“I’m going to go rest. Two more minutes,” said Chavez, whose speech lasted for more than 30 minutes.
Yet, shortly after the event, he reappeared in suit-and-tie on television greeting foreign dignitaries.
He told state television that he doesn’t expect to attend celebrations Tuesday marking the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s declaration of independence from Spain. Normally, Chavez would be front and center at the patriotic event, which includes a military parade and began with fireworks exploding over Caracas shortly after midnight.
The 56-year-old president stepped off a plane in Caracas early Monday. Smiling, he hugged his vice president and broke into song.
Many Chavez supporters were thrilled to have him back, and hundreds celebrated around noon Monday in the Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas, holding pictures of the president and chanting “Viva Chavez!” and “He’s back!”
“If that illness is attacked in time, people get through it,” said Xioraima Garcia, a 56-year-old lawyer who came to the plaza to celebrate with the crowd.
Asked how she thinks the situation will affect Chavez politically, she said: “What he’s going through has strengthened him more.”
Vice President Elias Jaua continued the show of confidence that the Chavez government and state TV projected all day long by insisting the president would be staying at his palace and not at a military hospital.
Chavez’s opponents have criticized the lack of details about his illness.
“We don’t know exactly what the president’s illness is, what treatment he needs and what consequences this treatment will bring,” opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina told The Associated Press. “What we demand is greater responsibility, not only on the president’s part but by all of those high in the government to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president’s real situation.”
Chavez has been dominant in the oil-exporting country for the nearly 13 years he’s spent in office, and his absence created a void that he clearly wanted to fill.
Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and other confidants have stepped up their appearances in Chavez’s absence, insisting they remain unified.
With his return, Chavez has the potential to fill that gap, but political observers will be watching closely to see how often he appears in public, whether he has the stamina to keep up a full schedule, and whether he might be quietly making plans to throw his support behind any of his allies as potential heirs.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said Chavez should enjoy a boost for now.
“Hugo Chavez’s illness will generate a lot of sympathy for him,” Isacson said. “It is already moving Venezuela’s political debate away from themes that don’t work to the president’s advantage, like crime, power shortages, the economy, and concentration of power in the presidency.”
“On the other hand, it also moves the debate in directions that Chavez would not want to see it go,” Isacson said. “For the first time in years, Venezuelans are thinking about what a post-Chavez era might look like. This raises concerns about the lack of an heir-apparent.”
Chavez seemed determined to dispel such doubts.
Looking down on his supporters outside the palace, Chavez gushed: “My thanks for so much support, so many manifestations of love.”
“Love is the best remedy for any illness,” he said.
Fabiola Sanchez, Christopher Toothaker and Jack Chang in Caracas contributed to this report.