* 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
"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
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.