Home again, Chavez salutes Venezuelans on independence
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saluted his people on their 200th anniversary of independence on Tuesday, looking pale but defiant after a triumphant return from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Ordinarily, the 56-year-old would have been out watching the parades of troops, tanks and fighter jets marking the bicentennial of the end of Spanish colonial rule. Instead, he gave a brief address from inside his presidential palace.
"Here I am -- in recovery but still recovering," he said.
Chavez hinted he hoped to prolong his rule for many years to come, urging supporters to join a "new, long march" to another bicentennial celebration in 2021 of a famous battle.
His return from Havana has let him reassert political control over the South American OPEC member. But it has not dispelled concerns his illness could curb his ability to rule, or to campaign for a presidential election due next year.
The socialist leader had a cancerous tumor removed and it is unclear whether malignant cells spread. He needs "strict" medical treatment but has vowed to win his health battle.
One source close to Chavez's medical team told Reuters the president could have colon cancer in an advanced condition that would require chemotherapy for several months.
His doctors recommend he should be treated in Venezuela, the source said, where a wing of the Military Hospital has been prepared for him. The chemotherapy would start once Chavez was fully recovered from the operations, the source added.
There was no confirmation of that, and the only official details of Chavez's condition have been given by himself. Allies express confidence he will make a full and fast recovery.
After an emotional homecoming speech to thousands of delirious supporters from the palace balcony late on Monday, Chavez swapped his military uniform for presidential regalia to give the short address for Tuesday's celebrations.
"We have recovered our independence," said the president, who has cast his 12 years in power as the liberation of Venezuela from decades of rule by corrupt oligarchies.
Critics see it otherwise -- arguing that Chavez's autocracy has cut short the country's proud democratic tradition.
FIREWORKS RISE, BONDS FALL
Chavez made his first appearance at home in almost a month on the palace balcony on Monday, the same spot where he greeted ecstatic supporters in 2002 after a failed coup against him.
Singing the national anthem, waving a huge flag and crossing himself, he thrilled the crowd in a classic example of the showmanship that has made him famous around the world.
"Chavez hasn't lost his touch. He still has the magic," U.S. analyst Michael Shifter told Reuters.
Any complications of his illness could create political chaos in the continent's biggest oil exporter, where the saga has underlined the lack of an obvious successor.
Casting himself as the "spiritual son" of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez has been building up to Tuesday's celebration for years, even naming some nationalized companies "Bicentennial" in its honor.
Fireworks burst over the capital Caracas from midnight on, ushering in a day of street parties across the nation.
Fellow Latin American leftist leaders Evo Morales of Bolivia, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay -- who was diagnosed with cancer himself last year -- were joining the celebrations and visiting their ally Chavez.
"He looked strong, very encouraged," Morales told reporters after meeting the president.
Following sharp gains last week, Venezuelan bond prices fell as Chavez's return poured cold water on speculation of a quick change to a more investor-friendly leadership.
The benchmark dollar-denominated 2027 bond fell 1.000 percent to bid 75.375 with a 12.907 percent yield.
"As harsh as this may sound, Chavez' faltering health has become the market's friend. It seems to suggest that if he becomes more debilitated, we could see additional upside," UBS said in a note, while cautioning that the election was a long way off and there was no guarantee the opposition would win.
PROBLEMS AHEAD OF 2012 POLL
Not all Venezuelans were partying on Tuesday, however. Some took to micro-blogging site Twitter to vent their views under the hash-tag "#nadaquecelebrar" ("nothing to celebrate").
"The day that men of ideas parade instead of the men of arms, that day we'll talk," read one widely retweeted message.
Chavez has built up broad support among Venezuela's poor by spending billions of dollars in oil revenue on social programs ranging from literacy courses to free medical clinics.
His vituperative criticism of U.S. foreign policy has made him a hero for many leftists around the world.
Chavez now faces a host of problems that threaten to weaken domestic support including high crime, frequent blackouts, soaring prices and a lack of affordable housing -- issues that made the 2012 election race look tight even before his cancer.
And his illness has dented the aura of invincibility of a man famous for nearly superhuman stamina that let him speak for hours on end and make dozens of appearances each month.
(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Deisy Buitrago, Mario Naranjo, Girish Gupta, Diego Ore in Caracas, and Walter Brandimarte in New York; editing by Todd Eastham and Cynthia Osterman)
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