CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela called off a regional summit due to Hugo Chavez’s unexpectedly longer recovery from surgery in Cuba, hours after releasing video on Wednesday of the socialist leader chatting with Fidel Castro.
The cancellation was a big blow for supporters of the charismatic but authoritarian Venezuelan president, who had hoped return to host the July 5-6 meeting, which coincides with the South American nation’s 200th anniversary of independence.
Chavez, 56, likes to grandstand at big events and had been planning a national party, with various heads of state in tow.
His government said the meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders was off for “force majeure” reasons. “Comandante Hugo Chavez Frias is in the middle of a process of recovery and extremely strict medical treatment,” it said.
The statement said the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit would be rescheduled for the second half of the year.
In the new video footage released earlier on Wednesday, Chavez appeared back to his chatty self in an encounter in Cuba with Castro, his close friend and political mentor, aimed at tempering rumors he is seriously ill.
Chavez’s absence has convulsed politics at home and spawned a frenzy of speculation over the future of his “revolution”.
Unlike brief extracts shown before, Chavez was heard talking this time, discussing regional politics and stories in Tuesday’s edition of the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma.
“Look how Fidel is reading, without spectacles. Me, too, though with a bit of trouble!” an animated-looking Chavez joked with the 84-year-old Castro after the pair were seen strolling in a garden, presumed to be at Havana’s Cimeq hospital.
Chavez, who has become one of the world’s best-known but controversial leaders during his 12 years in power, disappeared from public view after surgery in Cuba on June 10.
The government says he is recovering fine after an operation to remove a pelvic abscess.
But his prolonged absence, and the silence of a man famous for giving hours-long speeches, triggered rumors he may have something worse like cancer.
Later in the 20-minute video, Chavez and the equally garrulous Castro were seen sitting indoors, both in tracksuits, having a detailed conversation about Latin American history.
Presenting the images on state TV, Chavez’s vice president, Elias Jaua, said they were proof his boss was on the road to recovery. “They have comforted the nation and lifted morale.”
Chavez supporters immediately Tweeted their joy.
“Think of all the people now biting their tongues as they watch the images of President Chavez talking fine, with the same energy and passion as always,” said Eva Golinger, an American lawyer close to the president.
The new video footage does not definitively disprove the most extreme rumor — that Chavez has prostate cancer.
And it left plenty of questions unanswered: Why has Chavez still not addressed the nation? If his surgery was straightforward and successful, why is he still in Havana 19 days later? Who is running the government?
The affair has highlighted the lack of an obvious successor for Chavez, who has utterly dominated Venezuelan politics while driving forward his “21st Century Socialism” reforms.
“Chavez’s absence has led, whether the government admits it or not, to an ongoing crisis of governance and to a vacuum of power,” said Venezuelan analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos.
The saga had been threatening to turn the local political scene on its head before next year’s presidential election.
Were Chavez to be incapacitated, there would probably be a fight for power among his closest allies and the opposition might demand immediate elections, analysts said.
Given past violence, especially around a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez, the potential for more trouble always lurks in a nation brimming with arms and political bitterness.
Some Venezuelans think the president has deliberately let the rumors grow over the last two weeks so he can smoke out the opinions and positions of both allies and enemies alike, before making a triumphant return to the rejoicing of supporters.
Additional reporting by Diego Ore