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Home again, Chavez salutes independence

By Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne

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.

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