Chavez Returns To Venezuela

Just when Venezuelans were talking about President Hugo Chavez's future and thinking about what lies ahead if he doesn't run for reelection, Chavez returned to Caracas after cancer surgery in Cuba. Michele Norris talks with NPR's Juan Forero.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

This tweet appeared from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez today: Good morning, my beloved Venezuela.

Chavez had been in Cuba, where he had a cancerous tumor removed. And he was widely expected to remain there for a long period of recuperation. Then, unexpectedly, along with his tweet, came Chavez himself. He arrived in Caracas before dawn today, just in time for a made-for-Chavez event: The bicentennial of Venezuela's independence on Tuesday.

NPR's Juan Forero joins us now from Caracas. And, Juan, there'd been a lot of mystery involving the health of Hugo Chavez over the past month. What happened?

JUAN FORERO: Well, Chavez had basically disappeared for three weeks, only saying he'd undergone an emergency surgery in Cuba. That really turned politics upside down in Venezuela because the president is always on TV. He's either giving speeches, or presiding over summits, or hosting his television show.

He is omnipresent here in Venezuela and his government really revolves around him. So his absence and the questions it raised caused quite a bit of anxiety. And then he announced last week that the operation had removed a cancerous tumor. It was stunning for people in Venezuela.

NORRIS: And does his return answer any other questions about his health and how long his recovery might take?

FORERO: Well, surprisingly, not that much. He spoke Thursday night in a short -I mean, it was just 13-minute address. That's strange for a guy who can talk seven hours. And he said the operation had been a success. But he never said what kind of cancer. He never said what kind of treatments he'd been receiving.

Government ministers tried to assure people that everything was normal, that Chavez remained in charge. And over the weekend, state TV began showing documentaries about Chavez, commercials about Chavez, and issuing videos of Chavez in Cuba.

I kind of read it as the government trying to say to its people: Here he is, quite alive and recuperating, and he's going to be home at some point in the future.

NORRIS: And then he came home. He's there now. Why so soon?

FORERO: Well, I think that this is a way for the government to show that Chavez is getting better and getting better fast.

Remember that Chavez has a mystical connection with his people. He's held up by some here as a messiah who's delivered them from the clutches of the oligarchs and the gringos - meaning the United States.

So he can't get sick. It can't appear that he's weak. And Chavez, to be sure, is a man with incredible energy and stamina. And he has a taste for theatrics. So now he's back. And tomorrow, he'll possibly be front and center presiding over the bicentennial celebrations.

NORRIS: And what impact will his return have now on the government?

FORERO: Well, I think it's too early to say. Some allies of the government are already attacking the opposition. Some of those opposition politicians had demanded that the government transfer power to the vice president. They said that that would be in line with the constitution. And also, remember, there's a presidential election next year. So I suspect that they'll be made to pay for that, for those comments.

But, you know, I think that for many Venezuelans, it just goes to show how vital Chavez is for the state. That there really is no man who can replace him. No one has his charisma, his power. And I think many people are worried about how he has been made this icon who can't be replaced.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Juan Forero. He was speaking to us from Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks so much, Juan.

FORERO: Thank you.

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