CARACAS -- President Hugo Chávez was spirited into Venezuela in the pre-dawn hours Monday, sending his followers pouring into the streets but leaving many wondering what comes next for Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.
Chávez, 58, returned home early Monday without warning and no fanfare after spending more that two months incommunicado in a Cuban hospital recovering from cancer surgery.
But his homecoming yielded little about his state of health and is likely to revive speculation about who should be at the helm of this oil-rich nation.
“We want to see him and we want him to tell Venezuela what his decision is,” Omar Avila, the secretary general of the opposition Visión Venezuela political party, said in a statement. “Is he capable of governing the country or if he is going to step down due to the delicate state of his health?”
If Chávez were to resign or die, it would trigger new elections within 30 days. Before he traveled to Cuba on Dec. 10, the president asked the nation to rally behind Vice President Nicolás Maduro if new elections were needed. But since then, his followers have never acknowledged that the ailing comandante won’t assume power.
Even so, some sort of transition is probably imminent, said Robert Bottome, an analyst and director of the Caracas-based Veneconomy publishing group.
While Chávez may have been brought home because he truly is recovering, Bottome said, the government’s thinking might also be that “he’s deteriorating so fast we no longer have freedom of action, so let’s bring him back right now before it’s too late.”
After winning an additional six-year term in October, the socialist firebrand missed his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration as he battled his disease in Cuba. Even so, the Supreme Court ruled that he remained in charge and the ceremony could take place anytime he returned.
In the short term, Chávez’s homecoming is a boon for his supporters and may catch the opposition flat-footed, said Oscar Schemel, president of Hinterlaces polling firm.
Administration critics had been gaining traction with charges that the government was violating the constitution by insisting that Chávez was in control even though he was languishing in Cuba.
“This is a boost for Chavismo,” Schemel said. “On the other hand, it leaves the opposition without a strategy.”
As Maduro emerged Monday afternoon from the military hospital where Chávez is being treated , he said the president was “conscious and very happy and motivated to be back in his country.”
Aside from four pictures released Friday, it has been more than 70 days since Venezuelans have seen their president in the flesh or heard his voice. And Monday’s secretive arrival didn’t help.
The first notice that Chávez was back came from his own long-dormant Twitter account.
“We’ve returned to Venezuela,” Chávez wrote at 3:45 a.m. EST. “Thank you my God!! Thank you beloved nation!! We’ll continue our treatment here.”
In the past, Chávez’s medical trips have been high-profile and broadcast on national television. This time, there were no images of his return.
“It’s shameful that he arrived like he was a contraband package,” Diego Arria, an opposition politician, told Noticias24 radio. “Nobody knows how he arrived; it’s as if he were merchandise.”
In a letter from Fidel Castro released by the Venezuelan government, the former Cuban leader said the secrecy surrounding his treatment was needed “so as not to give an opportunity to the fascist groups to plan any of their cynical actions against the Bolivarian revolutionary process.”
Maduro also shot back, telling the opposition to “stay quiet for awhile… don’t mess with the deep sensibilities of the people.”
Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost against Chávez in October, welcomed the president and asked him to rein in his cabinet.
“I hope the president’s return helps bring some sense to all those people who have spent the last weeks degrading and insulting [us],” Capriles said. “I hope this means that the country will begin to know what’s happening; that they will tell the truth and spend their time and energy on things that are truly important.”
As the news of Chávez’s return spread in the pre-dawn hours, fireworks went off over the capital and crowds began to gather at the hospital and public squares.
“We’ve been sad for months, hoping for his return,” said Fanny Batista, 67, who stood outside the hospital. “Now we know his condition has improved. My heart is filled with so much joy my chest can barely contain it.”
Crowds also gathered at the iconic Plaza Venezuela.
‘SO MANY RUMORS’
“I can finally breathe because now we know he’s alive,’’ said Gregorio Chettick a 45-year-old chef. “For the last two months everything has been uncertain. There have been so many rumors; we didn’t know if he was already dead or if the country was going to break into a civil war.’’
The photos the government released last week showed the president lying in a hospital bed flanked by his two daughters. They were the first pictures to emerge since Chávez traveled to Cuba. The government also explained Chávez’s prolonged silence, saying that a respiratory infection had required a tracheal tube, which makes it difficult for him to speak.
Chávez has been battling cancer since at least June 2011, but the administration has never said what type of cancer he has or what organs may be affected. The president has only said that a baseball-sized tumor was removed from his pelvic region. Since then, he has undergone at least four surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation.
This last round of treatments has been plagued by problems including internal bleeding and a respiratory infection, which led to the tracheotomy.
Maduro also has said that Chávez is undergoing unspecified “complementary treatments.”
In his final Twitter message Monday, Chávez said he had faith in his medical team and in Christ.
“We will live and we will win,’’ he wrote.