UPDATE 5-Venezuela's Chavez back from Cuba, looks well

* Socialist leader had not been seen in public since Nov. 15

* His return counters rumors he was in grave condition

* Typically theatrical arrival for unpredictable president

CARACAS, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez

made a theatrical return home on Friday after medical treatment

in Cuba, walking and joking in a first public appearance for

three weeks that quashed rumors he may have been at death's

door.

"So, where's the party?" an ebullient and robust-looking

Chavez said after flying in before dawn to the surprise and

delight of supporters.

"I'm happy and enthused to be back again," he told beaming

ministers after walking unaided down the steps from his plane at

the international airport outside Caracas.

The 58-year-old socialist leader has had three cancer

operations in Cuba since mid-2011 and returned to Havana ten

days ago to receive "hyperbaric oxygenation" - a treatment

normally used to alleviate bone decay from radiation therapy.

Speculation had been rife that he may have suffered a

recurrence of the disease, and one local journalist had said he

was confined to a wheelchair.

Earlier this year, Chavez declared himself "completely

cured" and went on to win re-election comfortably in October.

Amid a barrage of rumors fed by the opposition, officials

had maintained that his latest visit to Cuba was just a

scheduled follow-up to the radiation therapy he underwent in the

first half of 2012.

Supporters celebrated the return of a man who has dominated

the South American OPEC nation since he first won election in

1998. He wore a blue and white tracksuit and flew with relatives

and aides including Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"YEEESSSS!!!!," tweeted Eva Golinger, an American-Venezuelan

lawyer close to the Chavez government.

"Chavez is back and has shown up all the rumor-mongers,

necrophiliacs, gossips and ill-thinkers ... Welcome comandante."

Chavez looked relatively well, moving with ease and chatting

for 15 minutes on the runway, although he remains puffy-faced as

he has been since the radiation treatment.

QUESTIONS LINGER, BONDS FALL

Chavez's return gives him a week to campaign for Venezuela's

Dec. 16 state elections, where his ruling Socialist Party is

hoping to use the momentum of the presidential victory to win

back some opposition-held governorships.

The opposition, however, is hoping that discontent with

grassroots issues like crime, power-cuts and cronyism will

enable it to at least hold the seven states it controls out of

Venezuela's 23.

Speculation over Chavez's health is unlikely to end, given

the scant details given by the government.

Doctors say hyperbaric oxygenation is a treatment normally

given in different sessions over several months, meaning he

could return to Cuba again soon.

They also say nobody can declare themselves cured of cancer

until a couple of years have passed without recurrence.

The president had dearly wanted to attend a Mercosur summit

in Brazil on Friday, to celebrate Venezuela joining the regional

trade bloc this year, so his absence from that maintained a

question mark over just how well he is.

News of Chavez's trip to Cuba had prompted a Venezuelan bond

rally given Wall Street and Western investors' preference for a

more business-friendly government in Caracas.

But in early trading on Friday, following news of his

return, Venezuela's global bonds fell 1.81 pct in price,

according to returns tallied by the J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets

Bond Index Plus (EMBI+).

Bonds had risen 6.2 percent so far this month to Thursday.

Opponents criticize Chavez for secrecy over his health and

preferring Cuban doctors to Venezuelans.

"His whole absence has been a black hole of misinformation,"

opposition legislator Tomas Guanipa told local media.

"Any president should give account to his people, it is an

obligation to give health details. When you are transparent and

responsible, and recognize you are there to serve the people not

boss them, the logical thing is to say what is going on."

Chavez has chosen to be treated in Havana due to his

friendship with Cuba's past and present leaders Fidel and Raul

Castro, plus the discretion he is guaranteed thanks to the

Communist government's strict controls on information.

Cuba's Communist Party newspaper published photos showing

Raul Castro bidding farewell to Chavez at Havana airport. Chavez

said he had met Fidel Castro during his stay.

Most Popular in World