Venezuela's Chavez Returns Home After Cancer Treatment

President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday after more than two months of cancer treatment in Cuba. He immediately was taken to a military hospital and has not been seen publicly. Venezuela has been in a leadership vacuum in his absence. Melissa Block speaks with NPR's Juan Forero for the latest on Chavez' ability to rule, and how Venezuelans are reacting.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The people of Venezuela got a surprise early this morning. Their president, Hugo Chavez, is back home after more than two months of cancer treatment in Cuba. The big question is how long will he hold onto power. Chavez announced the news of his return via Twitter. "We have arrived again in Venezuela," Chavez tweeted, "Thank God."

"But," he added, "here we will continue the treatment," and he was whisked immediately to a military hospital. I'm joined now by NPR's Juan Forero. And, Juan, what's the reaction been in Venezuela to Chavez's return?

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Well, there was joy in the districts of the country that support Chavez, so crowds were quickly gathering and people were firing off fireworks and the anchors and reporters on state television started shouting, Viva, Chavez, on television. But you have to remember that Venezuela is polarized politically, so there were many who came out to criticize the government for the Kremlin-like way it handles Chavez's condition.

And opposition leaders said Chavez's return in no way assured them that he was able to govern. In fact, they believe that all the evidence shows Chavez has not even been governing.

BLOCK: And let's walk this back just a little bit, Juan, because as we mentioned, Chavez has been in Cuba for more than two months. There's been very little information about his condition all this time. What's been going on?

FORERO: Well, this has been like a soap opera. Chavez left for Cuba on December 10th. He underwent a cancer operation the next day and then nothing. He disappeared from the airwaves. Sixty-seven days passed and he missed his own swearing in for a fourth presidential term last month. And some people in Venezuela were doubtful that he was running the day-to-day affairs, even though his ministers insisted he was.

Then, on Friday, the government released photos of him in a Cuban hospital and he was flanked by two of his daughters. And now he's back in Caracas, but no one expected it and, of course, there's very little information about his condition.

BLOCK: Very little detail and he apparently, as we said, remains hospitalized in Caracas. What is known, Juan, about his health?

FORERO: Well, again, a lot of secrecy around his condition so, remember, we don't know what kind of cancer he has, where in his body it's located exactly. I mean, they say it's his pelvic region, but does that mean the colon or the pancreas? No one knows. And we don't know if it's spread. We don't know what the prognosis is. Presumably his relatives and close aids know, but all the public knows is that he has had a difficult recovery, they've said that. And that he's been using a tracheal tube to breathe and that there is still some unnamed complications.

BLOCK: And lots of questions still, Juan, about what his return means and whether he can resume governing now that he's back.

FORERO: Well, yeah, the big significant point about all of this is now that Chavez is in Caracas, will he be sworn in as president. As I said, he missed the inauguration and the Supreme Court said that was okay, but the court is controlled by Chavez and opposition leaders said the whole arrangement was a violation of the constitution.

But now that he's in Caracas, he can take the oath and begin his fourth term, presumably.

BLOCK: Now, there is speculation, Juan, that maybe Chavez is back home simply to turn over power. Has the question of succession been cleared up? Who would take over?

FORERO: Well, there is a little bit of clarity there. Before Chavez left for Cuba, he spoke to the nation. It was very dramatic and he hinted that he might, just might, not be back and he said if that happened, everyone should support Nicolas Maduro, who is the vice president, and that there would be an election and that Maduro should be the guy people should vote for.

And Maduro has been very visible. He's been out giving speeches, inaugurating state entities. He's giving press conferences. So we'll just have to wait and see if Chavez decides to step down, if that's what's going to happen and then presumably Maduro would be the candidate of the ruling party.

BLOCK: And would he be presumed to win in an election? Does the opposition have the strength to defeat him?

FORERO: I think that the government would win. Chavez has a real connection, mystical, religious connection with the people and his poll numbers are actually pretty high. And some analysts believe that that would transfer over to Nicolas Maduro and that he would win.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Juan Forero, who just returned from a week in Venezuela. We were talking about the return of Hugo Chavez from cancer treatment in Cuba. Juan, thanks so much.

FORERO: Thank you.

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