By Pascal Fletcher
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's emotional homecoming from a rumor-plagued convalescence in Cuba after cancer surgery is the latest theatrical twist of a consummate showman with a career of dramatic comebacks.
Flying in the face of frenzied speculation that his illness might keep him out of Venezuela for weeks and possibly months, the beaming Venezuelan leader disembarked at Maiquetia airport near Caracas early on Monday after an overnight flight had whisked him from the Cuban clinic where he was being treated.
The night before, Venezuelans had seen video of the 56-year-old president looking like a recovering cancer patient at a Havana clinic, strolling with two of his daughters.
The country awoke early on Monday to new video of him arriving ecstatically home and hugging relieved ministers.
Hours later, in an example of the populist showmanship which has made him famous, the former paratrooper wore a green military uniform and a red beret as he greeted an ecstatic crowd of thousands outside the presidential palace with "Viva!" salutes to himself, Venezuela and ally Cuba.
Flanked by two of his daughters and with his voice straining slightly, Chavez showed both his familiar fighting spirit and obsession with detail, asking insistently whether the sound system was working.
His reappearance, in the best tradition of the "deus-ex-machina" climaxes of classical theater, had followed gushing references by at least one of the ministers to a "near miraculous recovery" in Cuba. But they had studiously avoided giving a date for his return.
Although it is still not clear how serious his cancer is, Chavez's return galvanized supporters who had been agonizing about the future of his self-styled leftist revolution.
He faces a stiff test in a presidential election next year amid growing popular discontent over high crime, power blackouts and persistent poverty in the OPEC nation.
"Chavez's return was the best thing that could happen to us. Without him, we are nothing, without him in the government we will be lost," Luisa Espejo, 47, said outside the palace, carrying her seven-month-old granddaughter.
Her words reflected the powerful personality cult that adoring supporters have created around Chavez.
The unexpected homecoming a day before Venezuela's 200th independence anniversary recalled other dramatic and equally theatrical comebacks in the eventful career of the flamboyant former coup plotter and coup victim.
In April 2002, Chavez managed another apparently miraculous return, emerging triumphantly as a head of state rescued and restored by loyal soldiers after his temporary overthrow by military and civilian coup-plotters.
Following the same triumphal script on Monday, he returned to the same balcony of the Miraflores palace where he had greeted jubilant supporters after surviving the coup.
In another piece of drama in 1992, he stamped his image in the minds of Venezuelans as a rebel in a red beret with a dramatic surrender on television after the failure of his coup bid against then President Carlos Andres Perez.
His acknowledgment of failure then, accompanied by the prescient words "for now," set up a political comeback that swept him to the presidency in 1998 on a wave of popular rejection against a corruption-riddled political order.
Amid uncertainty about the seriousness of his cancer and the length of his recovery, touches of theater had already been visible in his carefully choreographed appearances during his treatment at a clinic in socialist ally Cuba.
When he announced from Havana last week his cancer operation, an unusually somber and subdued-looking president had spoken about climbing back from the "abyss," giving the impression that one of the world's most supremely confident politicians had sensed his own mortality.
But the video broadcast by state TV hours before his surprise return on Monday showed a bubbly Chavez, wearing a bright tracksuit of the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan colors, discussing the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's work "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" -- with his two daughters fidgeting at his side.
Chavez referred to Nietzsche's "thesis of the Superman", throwing in a barrage of references to some of his favorite historical figures: Argentine-Cuban guerrilla legend Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Cuban independence poet and fighter Jose Marti and Venezuela's own independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Not everything is lost, no ... we can feel the dawn coming," Chavez said cryptically in the video.
At dawn on Monday, he was back in Venezuela. (Editing by Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara)