(File photo) Chavez had surgery in 2011 to remove a cancerous tumor.

Story highlights

Hugo Chavez had not been seen in public for three weeks

He just returned from medical treatment in Cuba

His absence stirred speculation about his health

CNN —  

A chipper Hugo Chavez bantered in front of the cameras early Friday morning upon returning to Venezuela from medical treatment in Cuba.

The image of the high-spirited president, who hadn’t been seen in public in three weeks, appeared to be a response to speculation about his health.

Chavez, who had surgery in 2011 to remove a cancerous tumor, has undergone further operations and radiation therapy in Cuba since then, but claims to be cancer free. Yet doubts persist among some who speculate that his condition is much worse than acknowledged.

Chavez: Survivor and Venezuela’s long-serving president

Chavez arrived in Caracas at 2:30 a.m. Friday, after spending nine days in Cuba, where he was undergoing hyperbaric oxygen treatment, the government said.

The treatment helps prevent and mend bone damage caused by radiation therapy, according to the American Cancer Society. It involves breathing pure oxygen in a sealed chamber that has been pressurized at up to three times normal atmospheric pressure.

Read more: Venezuelan elections about more than Hugo Chavez’s legacy

“I’m very happy to be here again, and with lots of enthusiasm,” Chavez told several of his Cabinet members who awaited him on the tarmac.

The timing of his treatment in Cuba, just weeks before regional elections in Venezuela, had once again sparked rumors about his health.

But in the 11 minutes shown on state television, Chavez was alert and joking, regaling his ministers with a retelling of a lengthy conversation he had with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Chavez said he and Castro spoke for two hours, sharing poems and stories about passion. He lauded the Venezuelan military for its unity and strength, and expressed pride in the anniversary of his first presidential electoral victory 14 years ago.

He stood unassisted as he spoke, dressed in a track suit. Cuban state media released a photo of Chavez with President Raul Castro at the airport in Havana.

The Venezuelan president has repeatedly spoken publicly about his cancer battle, but has never specified what type of cancer doctors were treating.