CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived back home in Caracas early Friday after 10 days of medical treatment in Cuba, but his failure to show up at a regional meeting in Brazil raised new questions about his health.
State television showed images of Chavez arriving at Caracas' airport and walking down the steps of the presidential jet wearing a track suit. Chavez smiled and laughed heartily as he chatted with members of his Cabinet including Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez, who has been fighting an unspecified type of cancer during the past year and half, for unexplained reasons skipped a Friday meeting in Brasilia with leaders of the South American trade bloc Mercosur. The Brazilian government said that Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez would instead be representing his country at the meeting — the first since Venezuela became a full member.
Chavez traveled to Cuba on the night of Nov. 27 after announcing plans to undergo hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Havana. The Venezuelan leader has spent much of the past 18 months battling cancer in the pelvic area, and he said in July that tests had shown he was cancer-free.
While in Cuba, he kept a low profile and did not speak on television. Chavez last appeared publicly during a televised meeting on Nov. 15 in Caracas, and his long absence had renewed speculation among some Venezuelans that his health might be taking a turn for the worse.
Chavez appeared vigorous as he spoke on television upon his arrival in the Venezuelan capital after 2:30 a.m. Friday. He didn't mention his health. Chavez, who travels on a presidential plane, often arrives in Venezuela very late at night or early in the morning.
"I'm very happy, as you all can see, to be arriving here again," Chavez said. "Very happy."
Chavez noted that Thursday marked two months since his Oct. 7 re-election win. Addressing Maduro and recalling other election victories, Chavez said: "Look at how we've come, Nicolas, from victory to victory."
Chavez hasn't given details recently about the hyperbaric oxygen treatment, during which patients breathe pure oxygen while in a pressurized, sealed chamber. The treatment's value is well-established for treating burns and some other medical conditions, and to aid wound healing and help repair bone and tissue damaged by radiation treatments.
The 58-year-old president first underwent cancer surgery in Cuba in June 2011 and later underwent another surgery in February. He has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Hyperbaric oxygen is regularly used to treat infections that can develop after radiation treatment, said Dr. Igor Astsaturov, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist who is not involved in Chavez's treatment.
"I would speculate that this is not directly related to the cancer process itself but maybe an infectious complication of pelvic radiation," said Astsaturov, an assistant professor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He said that such oxygen treatment "is used to treat infections but not tumors."
Throughout his treatments, Chavez has kept many details of his illness secret, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumors that were removed.
Chavez said his departure from Cuba had been delayed by a conversation with Fidel Castro, with whom he had been discussing poetry and reciting verses.
The Venezuelan leader also referred to the country's upcoming state gubernatorial elections on Dec. 16, saying: "We're eight days away from the next victory."
The government launched a hashtag phrase on Twitter, "BienvenidoComandante," or Welcome Commander, which became a top trending topic in the country on Friday morning.
During Chavez's absence, the government had announced that the president appointed new ambassadors in various countries, and he released a couple of written statements. But no messages have been posted on Chavez's Twitter account since Nov. 1.
The uncertainty sparked a rally in Venezuelan government bonds during the past week as investors speculated about the possibility that Chavez's health might be worsening. Then, bond prices dipped after the president's return. Even as bond prices declined between 2 and 3 percentage points on Friday, though, they were still trading about 10 percentage points higher than when Chavez announced his return to Cuba on Nov. 27, said Russell Dallen, a securities trader at Caracas Capital Markets.
Despite the lack of information about Chavez's condition, some say they think Venezuelans haven't seemed particularly concerned lately.
"The country has grown used to his prolonged disappearances," Venezuelan journalist Argelia Rios said in a column before Chavez's return that was published Friday in the newspaper El Universal. "What's striking... isn't the absence of the head of state, but rather the lack of interest surrounding his lengthy retreat."
Chavez's opponents have called for him to be more forthcoming about his condition and release a full medical report.
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, and AP freelance video journalist Ricardo Nunes in Caracas contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap