Chavez returns to put out fires

Venezuela's president knows domestic pressure is mounting, and the political cost of his absence is becoming too high.

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    Like so many other things related to President Hugo Chavez's illness, his return to Venezuela under the cover of darkness, was surrounded by mystery. Not that one could have expected the ailing president to walk off the plane as he arrived home in Venezuela for the first time in more than two months. Just on Friday the very first photograph of him was released. He was pictured lying in bed, surrounded by his two daughters, his neck covered to conceal the tracheal tube he needs to allow him to breath. He has difficulty speaking.

    "Thank you, my God", he tweeted. "I am back in the Fatherland, where we will continue my treatment."

    The question many are asking now is whether Chavez's unannounced arrival means he is back to return to power or to die on Venezuelan soil. I think assuming either one at this point is premature. Regardless of the president's short and medium term prognosis (and there has been no official information at all on this key point), the Chavez I know would be anxious to return home as soon as possible, even if it means going straight from the airport to Caracas' Military Hospital, as was the case.

    He knows the domestic pressure is mounting at home, and that the political cost of his prolonged absence is becoming too high. In his absence Venezuela has seen the worst food shortages in four years, a nearly 50 percent devaluation of the bolivar, and opposition-led protests in front of the Cuban Embassy demanding to know when Venezuelans will see their president again. All this is taking its toll and giving government opponents fresh ammunition to attack the officials Chavez put in charge in his absence.

    Whether Chavez plans to take over again for however long, or announce his resignation and call for elections 30 days later, as the constitution stipulates, is still a mystery. But for now, the president must be betting that his simple presence in the country will help put out some of the fires that - predictably - have been breaking out.


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