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.”