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.
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."