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Chavez celebrates Venezuelan independence

By Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez celebrated his nation's 200th anniversary of independence on Tuesday after a triumphant return from cancer surgery in Cuba that has left him weakened but defiant.

"Here I am, in recovery but still recovering," the 56-year-old Chavez said in a speech from his palace in Caracas as ministers and generals led ceremonies outside to mark the bicentennial of the end to Spanish colonial rule.

Chavez's return from Havana has enabled him to reassert political control over the South American OPEC member but it has not dispelled concern that his condition may impede his ability to rule or campaign for a 2012 presidential election.

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.

After an emotional homecoming speech to supporters on the balcony of his palace late on Monday, Chavez swapped military uniform for presidential regalia to give another short address for Tuesday's celebrations.

"We have recovered our independence," said Chavez, who casts his 12-year presidency as the liberation of Venezuela from decades of rule by corrupt oligarchies.

Critics see it otherwise -- that Chavez's autocracy has cut short Venezuela's proud democratic tradition.

In a strong hint he hopes to prolong his leadership, Chavez called on supporters to join him on a "new, long march" toward the bicentennial celebration in 2021 of a famous battle in Venezuelan history.

Any complications of his illness could create political chaos in the oil-exporting nation, where no one has been designated among his allies or adversaries to succeed the charismatic Chavez.

Fireworks blazed from various areas of Caracas as Chavez supporters marked the historic July 5 anniversary at midnight.

Fellow Latin American leftist leaders Evo Morales of Bolivia, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay -- himself diagnosed with cancer last year -- were joining the independence celebrations and visiting their ally Chavez.

BONDS FALL ON RETURN OF CHAVEZ

Casting himself as the successor of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez has for years been building up to Tuesday's celebration, even naming some nationalized companies "Bicentennial" in its honor.

Street parties were being held across the nation, while tanks and jets headlined a military parade in Caracas.

Prices of Venezuelan bonds fell, after sharp gains last week, as Chavez's return poured some cold water on speculation of a fast change in leadership.

Still, analysts warned against reading too much into Tuesday's market action because Venezuela's holiday was keeping trading volumes low, potentially exacerbating price moves.

Venezuela's global bonds due 2027 fell 0.875 percent to bid 75.500.

"Probably in the short term people will realize at least he is healthy enough to get back to office. But going forward there will always be doubts and questions regarding his health," said Felipe Hernandez, macro strategist for Latin America at RBS Securities.

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