Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez salutes before his departure to Venezuela from the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Monday July 4, 2011. Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba on Monday morning, stepping off a plane hours before dawn and saying he is feeling better as he recovers from surgery that removed a cancerous tumor. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina)AP
After weeks of illness, political speculation and a hiatus from home while undergoing surgery in Cuba, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made a surprise trip home.
Chávez returned early Monday, stepping off a plane before dawn amid rampant speculation about his fitness to continue in office following surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.
Looking thinner but standing straight and appearing energetic, Chávez strode across the tarmac of the Havana airport before boarding a plane.
In video aired by state television, he bade goodbye to Cuban President Raul Castro and then from the door of the airplane saluted, raised a fist, waved, and blew a kiss.
"It's the beginning of my return!" he declared from the runway in Venezuela shortly after arriving about 2 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. EDT; 0630 GMT.)
Chávez's military chiefs stood behind the president as he spoke on the tarmac, the plane's engine still running. He wore a blue-and-white warmup suit as he stepped off the plane in the darkness and hugged his vice president, Elias Jaua, and his elder brother, Adan.
The president's illness and three-week stay in Cuba had political observers speculating that he could be gone for months, and some questioned whether he could realistically ever return to office.
Chávez's sudden unexpected arrival Monday appeared to be his attempt to put that speculation to rest.
"I'm fine. I'm happy," said the president, who later pumped his fist in triumph as he held up a newspaper showing a Venezuelan soccer team's victory the day before.
In a telephone interview with state television, Chávez said he was eating a hearty breakfast.
"I'm devouring everything," he said.
The president was expected to greet his supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace later Monday, one day before the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain. A military parade and other events are planned to mark the bicentennial.
The 56-year-old president had arrived in Cuba on June 8 for what ostensibly was a previously scheduled visit. Chávez has said he underwent an initial surgery on June 11 to have a pelvic abscess removed and then a follow-up surgery to remove a cancerous "abscessed tumor" from his pelvic region.
He announced the second surgery Thursday after an 18-day silence. Neither he nor government officials have given details about what kind of cancer it is or what treatment he is receiving.
Jaua said he and others were "very excited to receive our president."
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, meanwhile, ended a more than monthlong silence to laud Chávez's recovery from surgery in Cuba, saying he was confident the Venezuelan leader will win his battle against cancer.
In an essay published late Sunday, Castro said his country has a "close and indestructible friendship" with Chávez. "Let's give him the strongest support and confidence," he wrote.
Castro said Chávez has worked almost without stopping since taking office in 1999, so it was only natural that his health would suffer. But he said the Venezuelan leader was recovering well.
"Without hesitation I affirm that the results are impressive, and I do not hesitate to affirm that the patient has undertaken a decisive battle that will lead him, and with him Venezuela, to a great victory," Castro wrote in the essay, posted on state-run web portal Cubadebate.
Castro also backed up Chávez's account that he did not initially come to Cuba for treatment.
"Some have found strange the coincidence of his visit to Cuba with the need for the medical attention that was carried out," Castro wrote. "The Venezuelan president ... did not have any intention of receiving medical services in our country."
Castro's essay was accompanied by photos of him meeting with Chávez. The site said they were taken earlier in the day.
Fidel Castro wasn't visible on the tarmac in the video of Chávez boarding the plane in Havana. But Chávez joked that "Fidel practically got on the plane."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.