CARACAS -- Venezuelans began gathering around the military hospital in Caracas early Monday to welcome home President Hugo Chávez, the cancer-stricken leader who has spent more than two months incommunicado in a Cuban hospital.
Chávezs pre-dawn return came as a surprise in a country that has largely been kept in the dark about his condition. In a Twitter message at 3:42 am EST, Chávez said he was back in the country and would continue his treatment in Venezuela.
Weve returned to Venezuela, he wrote. Thank you my God!! Thank you beloved nation!! Well continue our treatment here.
As the news spread, fireworks went off over the capital and crowds began to gather at the hospital and public squares.
Fanny Batista, 67, was one of the people who joined the crowds at the military hospital.
Weve been sad for months, hoping for his return, she said. Now we know his condition has improved. My heart is filled with so much joy my chest can barely contain it.
On Friday, the government released four photographs of Chávez laying in a hospital bed. They also reported that a tracheal tube, needed to assist breathing, was making it difficult for him to speak. The images were the first to surface since Chávez, 58, traveled to Cuba Dec. 10 to undergo a fourth round of cancer surgery.
His return is likely to revive speculation about who should be leading the oil-rich nation. After winning an additional six-year term in October, Chávez missed his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration. The administration has maintained that ceremony would take place once Chávez was back in the country. But if he were to resign or die, it would trigger new elections within 30 days.
The administrations likely chief rival in a future election, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, welcomed Chávez back and asked him to reverse the administrations raft of economic measures, which have included a 46.5 percent devaluation earlier this month.
I hope his return brings some sense to the government, Capriles wrote on Twitter. Lets hope his return is permanent.
As the news spread, a few hundred well-wishers also gathered in Plaza Venezuela, one of the citys iconic squares.
I can finally breathe because now we know hes 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 didnt know if he was already dead or if the country was going to break into a civil war.
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, only saying that it is located in his pelvic region.
He has undergone at least four surgeries, and a round of chemotherapy and radiation.
This last round of treatments, which began with surgery Dec. 11, has been plagued by problems including internal bleeding and a respiratory infection, which led to the tracheotomy.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro also has said that Chávez is undergoing unspecified complementary treatments.
In the past, Chávezs medical trips have been high-profile and shown on national television. This time the administration did not say how he was transported from the airport to the military hospital.
Its shameful that he arrived like he was a contraband package, Diego Arria, an opposition politician told Noticias24 radio. Nobody knows how he arrived; its as if he were merchandise.
In a letter from Fidel Castro released by the Venezuelan government, the former Cuban president said the secrecy surrounding the 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.
In the letter, Castro also thanks Venezuela for its economic support over the years.
When the socialist camp collapsed and the [Soviet Union] disintegrated, imperialism with its sharpened knife tried to drown the Cuban Revolution in blood; Venezuela, a relatively small country in divided America, was capable of preventing that, Castro wrote. That is why all honest people of the world have followed closely the health and news of Chavez.
In his final Twitter message of the morning, Chávez said he had faith in his medical team and in Christ.
We will live and we will win, he wrote.