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Crowds cheer as Chávez returns to Venezuela

February 18, 2013

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez surprised his countrymen on Monday by returning from a more than two-month absence in Cuba for cancer surgery and treatment.

As Chávez supporters took to the streets in noisy celebration, and foreign dignitaries congratulated Chávez and urged him to rest, the next step for the oil-rich country remains unclear.

It was not immediately known when, if at all, Chávez would be sworn in by the Supreme Court to begin a new term, after he won elections late last year.

Chávez announced his return on Twitter – he has nearly four million followers – and his arrival at Caracas airport was not broadcast on TV. “We have arrived again in our Venezuelan homeland,” Chávez wrote. “Thank you, God. Thank you, my beloved people. We will continue my treatment here.”

Chanting and banner-waving Chávez supporters gathered outside the hospital where Chávez was admitted.

Venezuelans had neither seen nor heard from him since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10 for a fourth round of cancer surgery.

U.S. officials said Monday that Venezuela’s Constitution calls for new elections if he is deemed unable to govern.

“We noted the return of President Chávez to Venezuela, and continue to express our sympathy at his illness,” a U.S. State Department official said.

“Should he not be able to execute the duties of office, the Venezuelan Constitution requires an election to select a new president,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He added that “longstanding hemispheric practice and principle” mandate free and fair elections, with open access to the media.

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