CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez's surprise return from Cuba after cancer treatment was a classic maneuver for a president who excels at showmanship. It's also likely to give him a political boost as supporters rally around their ailing leader.
The 56-year-old president projected a strong, vibrant image as he stepped off a plane early Monday. Smiling, he hugged his vice president, broke into song and later raised a fist in triumph.
"It's the beginning of my return!" he declared.
Hours later, he rallied thousands of supporters from a balcony of the presidential palace, telling them: "We will also win this battle for life."
Wearing fatigues and the red beret of his army days, Chavez revealed that he had been in intensive care in Cuba and held up a crucifix. "Christ is with us," he said.
The crowd chanted: "Oh, no! Chavez won't go!"
Despite the confident image, doubts about his future re-emerged as he suggested that he still isn't ready for a full comeback.
He told state television by telephone that he doesn't expect to attend celebrations Tuesday marking the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence from Spain. Normally, Chavez would be front and center at the patriotic event, which includes a military parade.
Still, for a president who knows how to command attention, his surprise return was signature Chavez and sent a powerful message that he remains in control. During nearly a month in Cuba, uncertainty has swirled in Venezuela, both about how sick he is and what would happen if cancer were to force him from power.
The long-term political impacts of fighting cancer for a leader who thrives on the spotlight remain unclear. But Chavez will likely play up his plight to rally his movement as he looks ahead to 2012 elections, in which his allies say they are convinced he will still be their candidate.
Unanswered questions about Chavez's health abound. He has said he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, and his foreign minister said it was extracted from the same part of the "pelvic region" where Chavez had an abscess removed in Cuba on June 11. Chavez hasn't said what type of cancer is involved nor whether he is receiving chemotherapy, radiation or another treatment.
Based on Chavez's account, medical experts said it's most likely he has colorectal cancer, but Chavez has not confirmed that.
"Beloved Venezuelan people, I'm sure you understand perfectly the difficulties of this battle," Chavez told the crowd at the palace. "No one should believe that my presence here... means that we've won the battle."
"No, we've begun to climb the hill. We've begun to beat the illness that was incubated inside my body," said Chavez, who appeared tired at times but spoke forcefully.
Chavez told the crowd he has been rising at 5 a.m., exercising and eating healthy foods such as yogurt. He also noted that his doctors have told him to limit the length of his public addresses to 30 minutes – perhaps one of the most difficult recommendations for the talkative leader to commit to.
"I shouldn't be here for too long," Chavez said. "I'm subject to strict medical and scientific controls. You all know the reasons."
Yet, shortly after the speech, he reappeared in suit-and-tie on television greeting foreign dignitaries.
Many Chavez supporters were thrilled just to have him back, and hundreds celebrated in the Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas, holding pictures of the president and chanting "Viva Chavez!" and "He's back!"
The capital city was festooned with freshly painted murals bearing his face and those of the country's 19th-century independence heroes. Yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags were everywhere downtown, fluttering from lamp posts and over doorways under sunny skies.
Elsa Gonzalez, a 61-year-old building maintenance worker, said she had stopped cooking breakfast when she saw Chavez on TV at the Caracas airport.
"I shouted with excitement," she said, teary-eyed as she joined the revelers in the plaza. "God is going to lay his hands on his body and is going to heal him completely."
Vice President Elias Jaua denied that Chavez's socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement was threatened and said Chavez would be staying at the presidential palace.
"He doesn't need to go to the hospital at this time," Jaua said.
Chavez's opponents have criticized the lack of details about his illness.
Leading opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said Chavez's return puts an end to the "irregular situation" of having a president governing from Cuba, but he said much has yet to be explained.
"We don't know exactly what the president's illness is, what treatment he needs and what consequences this treatment will bring," Marquina told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "What we demand is greater responsibility, not only on the president's part but by all of those high in the government to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president's real situation."
Chavez has been dominant in Venezuela during more than 12 years in office, and his absence created a void that he clearly wanted to fill.
Ever the political survivor, Chavez's many returns have historically helped him energize his base. Nearly a decade ago, Chavez bounced back in triumph after a 2002 coup briefly ousted him. A decade earlier, when he led his own failed coup in 1992, he said his objectives had not been reached "for now" – a hint of the come-from-behind presidential bid that would sweep him to power.
Jaua, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and other confidants have stepped up their appearances in Chavez's absence, insisting they remained unified. Chavez's elder brother, Adan, also has taken on a higher profile, at one point raising the possibility of armed struggle in the future to continue the president's socialist revolution.
With his return, Chavez has the potential to fill that gap, but political observers will be watching closely to see how often he appears in public, whether he has the stamina to keep up a full schedule, and whether he might be quietly making plans to throw his support behind any of his allies as potential heirs.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the think tank the Washington Office on Latin America, said Chavez should enjoy a boost for now.
"Hugo Chavez's illness will generate a lot of sympathy for him," Isacson said, adding that it's similar to what Argentine President Cristina Fernandez enjoyed in her poll ratings after her husband's death.
"It is already moving Venezuela's political debate away from themes that don't work to the president's advantage, like crime, power shortages, the economy, and concentration of power in the presidency," Isacson said. "On the other hand, it also moves the debate in directions that Chavez would not want to see it go. For the first time in years, Venezuelans are thinking about what a post-Chavez era might look like. This raises concerns about the lack of an heir-apparent."
Chavez appeared eager to counter such doubts.
"Here I am, at home and very happy!" Chavez said in a message on Twitter sent Monday morning. "Good morning, my beloved Venezuela!"
Video of Chavez's arrival broadcast on state TV did not show him ascending the airplane's stairs in Cuba or descending them in Venezuela.
Later, looking down on his supporters outside Miraflores Palace, Chavez appeared at his happiest. He led thousands of people in singing the Venezuelan national anthem and, despite his illness, addressed the crowd in his usual booming voice. State TV showed some in the crowd weeping at the sight of their "Comandante."
Chavez said he has made a rapid recovery following the difficult days after his surgery. "It's like a miracle," he said.
"I give thanks to Fidel Castro, who has practically been the chief of my medical team," Chavez said.
"Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!," Chavez told the crowd. "Long live life! Long live Chavez!"
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Christopher Toothaker and Jack Chang in Caracas, and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.