Cancer-stricken Chavez makes surprise return to Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelans began gathering around the military hospital in Caracas early Monday to welcome home President Hugo Chavez, the cancer-stricken leader who has spent more than two months incommunicado in a Cuban hospital.

Mr. Chavez's 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, Mr. Chavez said he was back in the country and would continue his treatment in Venezuela.

"We've returned to Venezuela," he wrote. "Thank you, my God!! Thank you, beloved nation!! We'll 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.

On Friday, the government released four photographs of Mr. Chavez 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 Mr. Chavez, 58, traveled to Cuba on 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, Mr. Chavez missed his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration. The administration has maintained that ceremony would take place once Mr. Chavez was back in the country. But if he were to resign or die, it would trigger new elections within 30 days.

The administration's likely chief rival in a future election, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, welcomed Mr. Chavez back and asked him to reverse the administration's 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," Mr. Capriles wrote on Twitter. "Let's hope his return is permanent."

Mr. Chavez 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 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.

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