Chávez's return came a few days after the release of four photos, the first proof since Dec. 9 that he is still alive. Those four photos created more questions than they answered as two of the four seemed to have different backgrounds, suggesting that they had been Photoshopped. On the defensive, the government then came out with a more detailed medical report, admitting that Chávez had difficulty speaking as he had undergone a tracheotomy.
Upping the ante, Venezuelan students started protesting in front of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, calling for a full accounting of Chávez's health and an end to Havana's interference in Venezuela's internal affairs. Coupled with the pope's surprise resignation for health reasons, pressure has begun to build on the government to give more details.
To maintain his position, Chávez needs to demonstrate "mobility, speech, and to take the oath of office," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. "If that occurs, Chávez then buys time to recover and can either govern or oversee a transition in which he plays a role rallying supporters, even if only symbolically."
Meanwhile, Chávez has yet to be sworn in for his fourth term of office. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, that should have occurred on Jan. 10 -- but the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that he could be sworn in at a later date. Now that he's back in country, the opposition -- and even the Catholic Church -- is calling for his swearing-in.
Allies like China, which have signed new deals with Maduro in recent days, are also eager for Chávez to be sworn in to avoid possible contract abrogations if Chávez were to die before fulfilling his legal obligations.
Still, any ceremony would be fraught with problems, especially as it would need to be televised, which would expose the president's real condition and likely raise further concerns about his ability to be president. That seems like something Maduro and the Chavistas seem unwilling to do right now. "They could tell people that Chávez was sworn in during a private ceremony, but that might be difficult,'' says Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group.
Still, Chávez's return should provide a welcome respite for Maduro, who has gotten off to a rocky start and is still recovering politically from a currency devaluation Feb. 8 that shaved a third of the value off the bolívar and that is sure to spur inflation.
The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader has been hard-pressed to explain why the government needed to devalue the currency when oil prices remain above $100 a barrel. To press its point, the government began floating commercials on the state television station, explaining that the devaluation would help the country rebalance its economy and reduce the crippling scarcity of staple goods.
Besides the devaluation, Maduro's only other initiative has been to press for an investigation of Venezuela's largest opposition party, First Justice, for alleged corruption. A proposal to investigate the party passed in the National Assembly but not before opposition legislators skewered Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela for their own wrongdoings.
"There is no doubt that Maduro isn't Chávez,'' says Tinker Salas, the Pomona College professor. "There is only one Chávez. With Chávez in the country, the attention now turns to him and less so to Maduro."
That could give Maduro time to grow into the job while Chávez gives Maduro his backing. But for a growing number of Venezuelans like Rojas, the president's return is only prolonging the suffering.
"Great, Chávez is here," he says. "But there is no sugar, no cornmeal, no gas. Take a guess what I prefer."