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What's next for Chávez and Venezuela?

President Chávez's predawn return to Venezuela, announced yesterday, raises many questions about the country's leadership and future.

Fernando Llano/AP
Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez celebrate his return, outside the Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday. Chavez returned to Venezuela early Monday after spending two months convalescing in a Cuban hospital.

Fireworks and tweets reverberated through Caracas early yesterday morning, alerting Venezuelans that their president had unexpectedly returned home after spending two months convalescing in a Havana hospital.

President Hugo Chávez's reported predawn arrival sparked celebrations in front of the Dr. Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital in Caracas where Chavez is said to be seeking further cancer treatment, but left many asking questions.

"The enthusiasm is relative," says Eloy Torres, a political science professor at Santa María University and a former administration diplomat. "Doubts remain as to how the president arrived, hidden like contraband. No one has seen him; it's a mystery."

Although news of the arrival sent the usually soft-spoken Information Minster Ernesto Villegas chanting, "He's back! He's Back!" on state television, there has not yet been any third-party confirmation that the president is indeed on Venezuelan soil. He has not been seen in public since Dec. 10, 2012.

Julio Lares, a computer technician, admits that while he was delighted to have his president home, whether or not he'll be at the helm again is entirely different matter.

"You can't put your faith into something you haven't seen," Mr. Lares says.

While the president's homecoming provides a morale boost for his followers, the uncertainty surrounding his ability to pick up where he left off as president leaves Venezuela in a state of political limbo.

Matter resolved?

For weeks, Venezuela's political opposition demanded full disclosure of Chávez's condition. According to Venezuelan law, if the president is unable to fulfill his duties, new elections are to be held. Until yesterday students were staging protests in front of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, citing a lack of transparency by the Venezuelan government, and expressing fears that the communist island was interfering with domestic politics.

There had been mounting international pressure as well. Some believe the move to release photos of Mr. Chávez last Friday – the first image shared with the public since his December cancer operation – was an attempt by the administration to quell the growing questions about the missing leader.

However, much like the reaction to the released photos, which some critics called a poor attempt to alleviate doubts of a power vacuum in the country, Chávez’s reported return yesterday "hasn't resolved anything," says Elsa Cardozo, a political science professor at the Central University of Caracas. It is unclear if Chávez, who missed his inauguration in January, will be sworn in for his fourth term as president in front of the National Assembly or if he will instead stump for his successor in an emergency election.

Over the past two months, the president's ministers have insisted that Chávez was still running the show – albeit from a hospital bed – brandishing his signature for major legislation or cabinet changes, like the recent controversial currency devaluation and the appointment of former Vice President Elias Jaua as minister of foreign affairs.

The president's reported return to Venezuela gives the impression that Chávez is still in control, says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society.

"[In the short term] I would expect a lot of pronouncements of policies that are attributed to President Chávez," says Mr. Farnsworth. "It forces people to look at Chávez as being in control, pulling the levers of government and takes the focus off the state of his health."

Despite the uncertainty, Oscar Schemel, president of the polling firm Hinterlaces, believes that Chávez's arrival "fortifies the position of Chávismo in Venezuela" mobilizing the president's supporters while undermining the opposition's criticisms.

"We didn't celebrate a merry Christmas this year with the president sick," says Jose Manuel Ramirez, a courier who  joined the crowds of jubilant supporters between deliveries yesterday. For Mr. Ramirez, like many Venezuelans, the president's reported return is a sign that Chávez is on the mend. "Today is happiness," he says.

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