Back in Venezuela, Chavez vows to win cancer battle

By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's ever-theatrical President Hugo Chavez made a surprise homecoming on Monday after cancer surgery in Cuba, thrilling supporters with an emotional pledge to win the fight to regain his health.

His voice straining at times, Chavez told a crowd of thousands gathered outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas he still needed strict medical treatment.

"Let nobody think my presence here today, July 4, means that we have won," he said.

"I swear that we will win the battle".

But his own words suggested a battle for full recovery that could stretch his legendary stamina in the weeks ahead.

Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said the president would have to follow a strict regime of rest and recuperation. "But that doesn't mean that the revolutionary government's actions will slacken," El Aissami told reporters.

After an overnight flight home, Chavez, 56, rested during the day then appeared on the balcony where he has addressed the nation during some of the biggest moments of his rule, including after he survived a short-lived 2002 coup.

Chavez's return changes the political dynamics once again in Venezuela, where politicians on all sides had been bracing for a protracted months-long absence of the man who has dominated the OPEC member nation since taking power in 1999.

"Long live life, long live Chavez!" the president, wearing a military uniform, told his delirious fans. He was strong enough to sing the national anthem and talk for 34 minutes.

Some supporters wept as Chavez recounted details of his operation in Cuba. "Those days were not easy," he said.

The unpredictable, populist Chavez, who has nationalized vast swaths of the economy and led anti-U.S. sentiment in Latin America, jetted in just in time for two days of celebrations of Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.

"He wanted to prevent the situation from unraveling," said analyst Michael Shifter. "The bicentennial was too compelling an occasion to miss. ... It was politically irresistible."

Before speaking from the balcony, Chavez waved a large Venezuelan flag and made the Christian sign of the cross.

With their "comandante" back on Venezuelan soil, elated supporters took to the streets of Caracas all day, chanting: "He's back! He's back!" and "Ooh! Aah! He's here to stay!"

Many Venezuelans had thought Chavez's convalescence after two operations last month in Cuba -- one to remove a cancerous tumor -- would keep him in Havana for weeks, possibly months.

"I'm fine. I feel well," Chavez said upon arrival, singing a folk song and hugging ministers at the airport.

"I'm back at the epicenter of Bolivar," he added, in reference to his idol, Simon Bolivar, a hero of South America's fight for independence from Spanish rule.

Casting himself as Bolivar's successor, Chavez's government has during 12 years in power boosted state control over oil, restricted currency exchange and taken over companies ranging from cement makers to producers of glass bottles and toilets.

Editor's Picks