Ailing Chavez sits out Venezuela celebrations

After returning suddenly from Cuba, cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez was the notable absentee Tuesday from Venezuela's bicentennial parade, lying low as he recovered from surgery.

Chavez, 56, didn't completely miss out on celebrations marking 200 years of independence from Spain, telling Venezuelans in a video message on a giant screen erected in the capital Caracas: "I am with you in body and soul."

The day after his return from Cuba, the anti-American firebrand claimed Venezuela had gained independence anew under his stewardship -- this time from multinational companies, foreign powers and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie.

"There is no better way to celebrate this long-awaited day than in being independent as we are again. We are no longer a colony, like we were, and we will never be one again," the leftist leader said.

Chavez, who has been president of Venezuela since 1999 and has already declared his intention to seek another six-year term in 2012, has nationalized key sectors of the Venezuelan economy, such as oil and gas.

His anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist rhetoric, regional powerbrokering skills and health and education programs for the poor have garnered him strong public support hovering at around 50 percent in most surveys.

Thousands of supporters chanted "he's back, he's back," while a parade displaying the latest military equipment -- much of it purchased from key allies China and Russia -- passed by in a triumphant show of strength.

No opposition leaders took part in the parade. Venezuela is sharply polarized along political lines, and the differences between the pro- and anti-Chavez sides are wider than ever.

"This celebration belongs neither to a government, nor a single person. It belongs to all Venezuelans," the opposition Coalition for Democratic Unity said in a statement.

Opposition members also urged Chavez to honor the bicentennial by releasing people whom they consider political prisoners including Chavez rival Alejandro Pena Esclusa, who was detained last year and has cancer.

The government denies having any political prisoners.

Chavez also met with a triumvirate of visiting leftist allies, presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Jose Mujica of Uruguay, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay -- all of whom, unlike him, took part in the parade.

On display was a veritable arsenal acquired from key ally Russia, including T-72 tanks, BMP-3 amphibious combat vehicles, Dragunov sniper rifles, as well as troop carriers and anti-missile systems.

Sequestered for nearly four weeks in Cuba where he underwent surgery to have a cancerous tumor removed, Chavez returned unexpectedly Monday to Caracas, rallying a crowd with his trademark gusto.

In a speech from the palace on Monday, the former paratrooper admitted he had been through some "very difficult hours" during treatment, and cautioned that he had only experienced the "first stage" of the battle.

He urged patience and strength on the march toward a "final victory."

It was almost four weeks ago, on June 8, that Chavez left for Cuba, an isolated ally where the ruling Castro regime is heavily dependent on oil exports from Venezuela, the region's main oil exporter.

Two days later, Chavez was rushed to hospital for emergency treatment on what Cuban and Venezuelan officials said was a pelvic abscess. Conflicting reports and mounting speculation about his condition followed.

As days ran into weeks, the absence of the omnipresent leader, who is seen daily on television, heard on the radio and read on Twitter, led to speculation about political life without Chavez in Venezuela.

Last week, eyebrows were raised further when Venezuela postponed the inaugural summit of a new Americas bloc, a regional gathering that excluded the United States and Canada, that Chavez had been due to host.

On Thursday, the Venezuelan leader made a dramatic announcement on state television via video from Havana that doctors had found and removed a cancerous growth.

Officials have since said that the tumor, removed on June 20, was in his pelvic area, but that all the president's organs are fine. They have not said what type of cancer it was or what the longer-term prognosis might be.


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