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Venezuela: After months in Cuba, Hugo Chavez returns home

Chavez's homecoming will fuel supporters' hopes he could return to active rule in Venezuela, though he may be simply hoping to smooth a power transition.

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The December operation in Havana was his fourth for the cancer first detected in his pelvic area in June 2011.

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On Friday, the government published photos showing Chavez lying in a hospital. Officials said he was breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.

Chavez's pre-dawn return was a typical surprise move for the former soldier whose rule has combined constant political theatrics with thundering anti-U.S. rhetoric, tough treatment of opponents and lavish spending of oil revenues on the poor.

Opponents have been decrying government secrecy over Chavez's condition, and some have called for a formal declaration that he is unfit to rule. That would trigger a new presidential election within 30 days, probably between Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, is Chavez's preferred successor and would be favorite to win a close vote in such a scenario.

"Uncertainty over a possible presidential election remains intact, despite the president's return," Venezuelan political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.

After winning re-election in October last year, and wrongly declaring himself cured, Chavez was unable to attend his own swearing-in ceremony in January. To the fury of his foes, Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that he remained president and could be sworn in later.

That could now happen at the military hospital.

"Now the president is back, there can be no doubt about the democratic institutions working in Venezuela," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said.

"There were some who dream of unseating Chavez and the revolution, but here we always said Chavez is the president elected and re-elected by will of the Venezuelan people."

Chavez's return will eclipse national debate over a recent devaluation of the local currency. It has proved highly popular among Venezuelans but opposition parties see it as evidence of economic incompetence by the government.

Unlike previous returns to Venezuela after treatment, state media showed no images of Chavez this time.

His lengthy absence in Cuba had fuelled a long-held opposition accusation that Venezuela's government was being manipulated and directed from Havana. Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is a political mentor and father figure to Chavez and Castro visited him regularly in the hospital.

Some 20 Venezuelan students have spent the past four days chained up close to the Cuban Embassy in Caracas in protest of what they see as interference from Havana in internal affairs.

Capriles welcomed Chavez back but pointedly said he hoped it would mean a return to order in government and attention to Venezuelans' daily problems.

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