CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's surprise return to his country on Feb. 18 still leaves Katiana Perez sputtering in disbelief. "I can't believe he's back, that he is alive and well," says Perez, a 30-year-old beautician, choking back her tears. "He is our leader, our president, our father. We can all rest easier now that he's home."
She's not alone in her disbelief.
Javier Rojas woke up Monday morning when a friend called to tell him of El Comandante's return. An unemployed 43-year-old computer technician, Rojas didn't vote for Chávez in the October presidential election and blames the president's policies for many of the country's woes. "The nightmare continues," he says. "How much longer do we have to suffer this charade that he's in control? How much longer are they going to lie to us about his condition?"
Chávez's stealthy return to the country, which surprised even his cabinet and closest advisors, is yet another unexpected twist in Venezuela's unfolding political drama. Flying from Cuba, where he had been in seclusion for two months and seven days after undergoing his fourth operation for cancer, Chávez arrived at Caracas's Simón Bolívar International Airport at 2:30 a.m. Unlike previous arrivals and departures, this homecoming wasn't televised, nor were any photos released.
According to El Universal, Chávez was sedated before takeoff, and the plane flew at a low altitude to avoid compromising his delicate health and an ongoing respiratory problem. Upon his return, he was taken to the military hospital in Caracas. When he was safely in his room, three messages went out on his Twitter account. Besides thanking Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Raúl Castro for their support, Chávez (or someone in his retinue) tweeted, "We have arrived again to Venezuela. Thank God. Thanks to my beloved country. Here we will continue treatment."
Celebrations by the president's supporters began almost immediately in Caracas and other major cities, stoked by the state media machine, which called on the president's backers to take to the streets. The state television station flashed the headline, "He's returned!"
Soon crowds had gathered outside the military hospital and Plaza Bolívar in the capital's center, where they shouted slogans, danced, and sang. A nurse told state television that she had seen Chávez walk into the hospital unaided, eschewing a gurney or wheelchair. That claim was immediately picked up and repeated by government officials.
But discrepancies immediately cropped up. As opposition politicians noted, if Chávez was able to walk into the hospital, why did he disappear from sight? And after the three initial tweets, why was there was nothing more from the ailing leader and no video footage or photos released?
"Cuba or Venezuela, we still don't know what is happening," says Rojas.
Analysts say there are three possible scenarios in the wake of Chávez's return. The first scenario -- which sees the president getting better and resuming his duties -- is also considered the most unlikely. The second is that Chávez will be sworn in for his fourth term of office and then promptly resign in favor of his handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Such a move would give legitimacy to Maduro and help him in any subsequent presidential election, which would have to be scheduled within 30 days of Chávez's stepping down.
The third scenario is the darkest: that Chávez will die without being sworn in. Most observers are leaning toward the second or third scenario. "We still expect to see elections before the end of the year," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group.
Chávez has never indicated what kind of cancer he is fighting or what the prognosis is. A tumor was discovered in June 2011 and subsequently removed. Since then, he has undergone three more operations in addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During last year's presidential campaign, he repeatedly assured voters that he was cancer-free, even though he often appeared sick and tired during his infrequent campaign swings. He won reelection with about 55 percent of the vote. His current term ends in 2019, but few Venezuelans, if any now, think he'll see this term out.