- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2011

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a surprise return from Cuba early Monday, stepping off a plane before dawn amid rampant speculation about his fitness to continue in office following the removal of a cancerous tumor from his pelvic region.

Looking thinner but standing straight and appearing energetic, Mr. Chavez strode across the tarmac of the Havana airport before boarding a plane.

In video aired by state-run television station VTV, he bade goodbye to Cuban President Raul Castro and then from the door of the airplane saluted, raised a fist, waved and blew a kiss.

“It’s the beginning of my return!” he declared from the runway in Venezuela shortly after arriving about 2 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. EDT)

The president’s illness and three-week stay in Cuba had political observers speculating that he could be gone for months, and some questioned whether he realistically ever could return to office.

Mr. Chavez’s unexpected arrival Monday appeared to be his attempt to put that speculation to rest.

“I’m fine. I’m happy,” said the president, who later inside the airport raised his fist in triumph as he held up a newspaper showing a Venezuelan soccer team’s victory the day before.

In the telephone interview with state television, Mr. Chavez said he was eating a hearty breakfast.

“I’m devouring everything,” he said.

And yet during the same interview, Mr. Chavez went on to say that he didn’t plan to attend long-planned and widely anticipated celebrations scheduled for Tuesday to commemorate Venezuela’s bicentennial.

“I don’t think that I can accompany you in the official acts tomorrow, but I am here and will be with all of you from my command post in the heart of Caracas, although I never left,” Mr. Chavez said.

He also said he planned to consult with his doctors before meeting with his government.

“I just finished checking the medical schedule, before anything,” the president said. “Scientist, doctor, before anything.”

At his early morning arrival, Mr. Chavez’s military chiefs stood behind the president as he spoke on the tarmac, the plane’s engine still running. He wore a blue-and-white warmup suit as he stepped off the plane in the darkness and hugged his vice president, Elias Jaua, and his elder brother, Adan.

Video on state TV didn’t show Mr. Chavez either ascending the airplane’s stairs in Cuba or descending them in Venezuela.

The president was expected to greet his supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace later Monday, one day before the 200th anniversary of Venezuela’s declaration of independence from Spain. A military parade and other events are planned to mark the bicentennial.

The 56-year-old leader arrived in Cuba on June 8 for what ostensibly was a previously scheduled visit. Mr. Chavez has said he underwent an initial surgery June 11 to have a pelvic abscess removed and then a follow-up surgery to remove a cancerous abscessed tumor from his “pelvic region.”

He announced the second surgery Thursday after an 18-day silence. Neither he nor government officials have given details about what kind of cancer it is or what treatment he is receiving.

Mr. Jaua said he and others were “very excited to receive our president.”

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, meanwhile, ended a more than monthlong silence to laud Mr. Chavez’s recovery from surgery, saying he was confident the Venezuelan leader will win his battle against cancer.

In an essay published late Sunday, Mr. Castro said his country has a “close and indestructible friendship” with Mr. Chavez. “Let’s give him the strongest support and confidence,” he wrote.

Mr. Castro wrote that Mr. Chavez has worked almost without stopping since taking office in 1999, so it was only natural that his health would suffer — but he said the Venezuelan leader was recovering well.

“Without hesitation I affirm that the results are impressive, and I do not hesitate to affirm that the patient has undertaken a decisive battle that will lead him, and with him Venezuela, to a great victory,” Castro wrote in the essay, posted on state-run web portal Cubadebate.

Mr. Castro also backed up Mr. Chavez’s account that he did not initially come to Cuba for treatment.

“Some have found strange the coincidence of his visit to Cuba with the need for the medical attention that was carried out,” Mr. Castro wrote. “The Venezuelan president … did not have any intention of receiving medical services in our country.”

Mr. Castro’s essay was accompanied by photos of him meeting with Mr. Chavez. The site said they were taken earlier in the day.

The former Cuban leader wasn’t visible on the tarmac in the video of Mr. Chavez boarding his flight in Havana,  but Mr. Chavez joked that “Fidel practically got on the plane.”

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.

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