President Hugo Chavez shocked and delighted Venezuelans by returning home Monday after spending more than two months in Cuba for cancer surgery and treatment.
Chavez announced his return on Twitter, and his arrival at Caracas airport was not broadcast on TV, which is unusual in this oil-rich country he so thoroughly dominates politically and personally. Chavez was immediately hospitalized to continue treatment.
"We have arrived again to the Venezuelan motherland," Chavez wrote. "Thank you, God. Thank you, my beloved people. We will continue my treatment here."
From the airport, he was taken to Carlos Avarela Military Hospital in Caracas, said his son-in-law and Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked political heir, swiftly went on national television to declare that Venezuelans were "absolutely happy" to have the president back and promised an update on the state of his health later on Monday.
Venezuelans had neither seen nor heard from Chavez since he left for Cuba in December, although on Friday photos of a bedridden but smiling Chavez were shown on Venezuelan TV.
Maduro also called on his countrymen to show solidarity with Chavez "without disturbing his calm."
The last time Venezuelans saw Chavez was when he left for Cuba December 10 for his fourth round of cancer surgery since being diagnosed in mid 2011.
Government updates on his condition have been sketchy, fueling speculation that the president was worse off than officials were admitting or perhaps even dead.
The government had never said what kind of cancer he had or where it was, or when he might return home. Now, seemingly out the blue, Chavez is back.
Pro-Chavez people started gathering Monday morning in Bolivar Plaza to celebrate the return of their larger than life comandante, a garrulous populist who is the most visible face of the Latin American left and a thorn in the side of Washington for his alignment of oil-rich Venezuela with nations such as Iran, Syria and Cuba.
"He's back, he's back, he's back," supporters chanted, footage broadcast on state-run VTV showed.
"There are no words to describe this moment. GOD BLESS YOU," tweeted Chavez fan @jennygarral1.
Mauro Delgado, an Ecuadoran taxi driver who has lived in Caracas for 34 years, said "if God is keeping him alive it must be for something. I think that if he came back it is because he is getting better. Otherwise, he would have stayed in Cuba."
Fidel Castro hailed his long-time friend's return home. He said a "long and anxious" wait is over for the Venezuelan people, thanks to Chavez's "stunning physical stamina and the total dedication of the doctors" who treated him in Havana. That medical team accompanied Chavez back home.
VTV showed employees at the network celebrating live on air, accompanied by Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
The 58-year-old Chavez, who has been in power for more than 14 years, had declared himself free of cancer after earlier rounds of surgery and treatment and went on to win another six year term in elections last October.
But he suffered a relapse, and after the latest surgery on December 11 in Havana he was still too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on January 10.
The inauguration has been postponed indefinitely, and Maduro has essentially been running Venezuela in Chavez's absence. There was no immediate word whether Chavez will now take his oath of office.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in the October elections, tweeted: "May the return of president mean that Mr. Maduro and the ministers will get down to work. There are many, many problems to resolve."
A poll released Sunday said that if elections were held now between Maduro and Capriles, the former would win by 14 percentage points.
Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said that even though Chavez has come home uncertainty remains over the prospect of early elections -- they would be called if Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated.
But with his return, support for Maduro will grow even more, Leon said.
Opposition parties insist Chavez's term ended January 10 and that if he cannot start a new one in person, an interim president should be named pending a decision on whether Chavez should be declared incapacitated, in which case a new election would be called quickly.
But throughout his illness, Chavez avoided relinquishing power, and the National Assembly had voted to grant him unlimited leave to undergo medical treatment outside of the country.
In his Twitter message, Chavez also expressed his gratitude to Cuba and its leaders for their assistance in his medical treatment.
"Thank you Fidel, Raul and everybody in Cuba," he wrote, referring to Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro. "And thank you, Venezuela, for so much love."
As before, he underscored his belief in God and hopes for complete recovery.
"I am holding on to Jesus Christ and trust my doctors and nurses," the president said. "As always, see you in victory. We will live and we will win."