Venezuela celebrates independence with Chavez home
By Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela celebrated the 200th anniversary of its independence on Tuesday with President Hugo Chavez back in his palace after a triumphant return from cancer surgery in Cuba that has left him weakened but defiant.
"Happy Birthday, Dear Fatherland!" the 56-year-old Chavez said via Twitter as his ministers led ceremonies to mark the bicentennial of the end to Spanish colonial rule.
Chavez's return from Havana has allowed him to reassert political control over the South American OPEC member but failed to dispel concern his condition may crimp his ability to rule or effectively campaign for a 2012 presidential vote.
In a homecoming speech to delirious supporters from the palace balcony late on Monday, Chavez said he still needed medical treatment but vowed to win his health battle.
The socialist leader had a cancerous tumor removed in Cuba and it is unclear if malignant cells have spread further.
Any complications of his illness could create political chaos in the oil-exporting nation, where there is no designated leader among his allies or adversaries to succeed the charismatic Chavez, who has dominated Venezuela for 12 years.
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 due to join the independence celebrations and visit 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 were to headline a military parade in Caracas.
Chavez said he would not take part on the street, though some Venezuelans thought their ever-unpredictable leader would not be able to resist the temptation of more grandstanding.
Venezuelan bond prices had risen last week on market sentiment that Chavez's ill health might foreshadow a change of government -- but his return to Caracas stemmed the rally.
The benchmark 2027 global bond fell 2.375 points to 74.500 in trading on Tuesday, though volume was low.
Chavez's allies, known for internecine disputes and competition for the president's attention, looked relieved and euphoric to see him back in Venezuela. Many in Venezuela had expected he could be in Cuba for weeks or even months.
"You have no idea how much I cried that day," said Denis Leon, 40, a government worker, recalling Chavez's momentous announcement last week that he had been treated for cancer.
"Now all of those (opposition sympathizers) who wished him dead are the ones crying," he added.
2012 ELECTION LOOMS
Chavez has built up broad support among the country's poor by spending oil revenues on social programs ranging from literacy courses to free medical clinics.
And his vituperative criticism of U.S. foreign policy has made him a hero for many leftists around the world.