Venezuelans rally as Chavez returns

Venezuelans rallying in Merida support of Hugo Chavez on the day he returned to the country, February 18. Photo from Ryan Mallet

Venezuelans rallied in support of their president, Hugo Chavez, on February 18 after his surprise return from treatment in Cuba.

In the early morning, Chavez had announced on Twitter he had arrived in Caracas after more than two months of cancer treatment in Havana.

Chavez tweeted: “We’ve arrived once again to the Venezuelan Homeland. Thank you God! Thank you beloved people! We’ll continue treatment here.”

Upon his return, Chavez was taken to the Dr Carlos Arvelo military hospital in Caracas, where he will continue treatment.

A crowd of supporters gathered at the hospital at dawn to celebrate.

This was just the first of a number of rallies that took place throughout the day, across the country.

In Bolivar Plaza in downtown Caracas, there was another gathering, where supporters chanted, “our commander has returned!”

By the afternoon, rallies were taking place in all major cities.

In Merida, a few hundred supporters gathered in the town centre, celebrating with music, fireworks and banners.

Attendees expressed relief and excitement at the return of Chavez, who underwent a fourth round of cancer-related surgery on December 11. A caravana of decorated motorbikes and cars also made its way through town, sporting red flags and blasting music.

Chavez was re-elected in October on the back of a proposed Socialist Plan for the 2013-19 presidential term. The plan has since been widely debated at mass meetings across the nation and a large number of proposed changes submitted. The final version will be put to the National Assembly to be adopted.

The socialist forces received a further popular mandate on December 16, when candidates from the Chavez-led United Socialist Party of Venezuela swept regional elections, winning 20 out of 23 governorships.

With Chavez out of the country since December 10, and unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly on the original set date of January 10, the right-wing opposition has claimed the government is illegitimate. This is despite the lack of any constitutional basis to these claims.

The international media has speculated that the pro-poor process of revolutionary change could be finished due to Chavez's ill-health. However, hundreds of thousands of poor supporters of the revolution have marched around the country several times this year in support of the Chavez government and the revolution.

Chavez's unexpected return to Venezuela came just three days after the first photographs of the socialist president since his latest surgery were released on February 15. The photographs showed Chavez smiling with his daughters Maria Gabriela and Rosa Virginia, and reading the Cuban national newspaper, Granma.

An official statement gave some details of his condition, stating, “the respiratory infection which emerged in the course of the post-operatory treatment was controlled, although a certain grade of (respiratory) insufficiency persists”.

“President Chavez is currently breathing through a tracheal tube, which temporarily makes it difficult for him to speak.”

Some media outlets claimed the photographs were fraudulent, and the president's condition has been subject to ongoing speculation since he left Caracas.

Referring to criticism from opposition leaders that the government had failed to keep the Venezuelan people sufficiently updated on Chavez's condition, Communication Minister Ernesto Villegas said on February 18: “The ominous voices are defeated, those who were calling into question the information emitted by the national government with respect to Chavez’s health.

“A terrible mechanism was activated to delegitimise, and call into question all of the information that was being given, including by echoing the most atrocious versions [of Chavez’s health].”

Within hours of Chavez arriving in Caracas, Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro told media that PSUV leaders would meet to discuss political strategy later in the day.

Chavez's surprise return to the country has not stopped speculation about his health, but it may temporarily dampen opposition demands for the 58-year-old head of state to step down.

Since the postponement of inauguration of the president's fourth term in office, opposition leaders have repeatedly demanded new elections. Some claim the postponement was unconstitutional, despite the Supreme Court unanimously ruling in favour of the government's decision in January.

The government also faces mayoral elections in July, and economic uncertainty following a landmark devaluation of the Venezuela's currency, the Bolivar, by 31.7% on February 8.

The move brings the official value of the Bolivar more in line its value in the black market. It will increase oil revenues, which provide the financial backbone of the government's pro-poor social missions. It could potentially boost national industry by making it more competitive against imports.

However, it also reduces workers' spending power by making imports -- on which the Venezuelan economy remains heavily dependent -- more expensive. There are fears it will significantly drive up inflation.

For these reasons, the move has proven controversial. This is despite government announcements of a suite of new measures to combat price rises caused by the devaluation; including new price controls and increased monitoring of retailers.

The creation of the new Superior Office for the Optimization of the Exchange System is also intended to provided greater oversight of the distribution of US dollars at the government rate, and reduce currency speculation.

Despite these issues, Chavez is enjoying his highest approval rating since 2006. An opinion poll conducted last month by the 21st Century Social Research Group, 70% of the Venezuelan population rated their president's performance over the past year as good or very good.

[Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is a Green Left Weekly journalist based in Merida.]