For five minutes yesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez stood on the balcony of his presidential palace in silence, lapping up the cheers of thousands of supporters ecstatic to see their hero back in town after a long – and uncharacteristically silent – period of convalescence in Cuba.
Mr. Chávez's surprise return – just days after announcing that he had been undergoing treatment for cancer while in Cuba – comes just in time for the country’s bicentennial celebrations today.
The festivities have been planned for years and Chavez wouldn't have missed it, say analysts.
“The bicentennial is an irresistible political moment for [Chávez],” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “He naturally wants to make the most of it, and he can only do that in front of adoring throngs in Venezuela.”
And adoring they were.
“It’s a miracle I am here considering how I was,” said Chávez.
Indeed, many considered his return doubtful after his announcement last week that he had undergone surgery for cancer. But Venezuelans woke up Monday morning to see pictures of Chávez arriving at Caracas’s airport in the early hours, hugging ministers and even breaking out in a traditional folk song.
The news, alongside the president’s ebullient mood, sparked impromptu street parties all over Caracas culminating with Chávez’s address to the thousands of fans gathered at the presidential palace.
“We are here because we love Chávez,” said Andre Tevari, a businessman, one of thousands of supporters dressed in red leaning on railings at the palace. “He has done so much for us. He is the one. It is the opposition that is the cancer of this country.”
Opposition leaders, for their part, wondered if the Chávez's somber announcement last week and proud return yesterday were politically calculated.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, widely tipped to win primaries in February and take on Chávez in next year’s election, predicted last week that the whole situation was a political ploy in order to allow Chávez a “triumphant return.”
While Chávez suggested from the Miraflores balcony that doctors’ orders may hamper his ability to take part in celebrations, there is little doubt now that the master of public relations will at least appear for a photo, bathing in the sea of red that faithfully and unhesitatingly buoys his popularity.
Esleé Polido, a member of Chávez’s Bolivarian militia, said yesterday, outside the Comandante’s presidential palace, “I am here for the president, for the revolution and for my country. I will be here until I die.”
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