Chavez on hand as Venezuela marks key independence date

Venezuelan troops march in a parade in Caracas marking 200 years of the country's independence (5 July 2011) Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez was unable to watch the parade in person

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Venezuela is marking the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain, with President Hugo Chavez back from cancer surgery in Cuba.

A military-civilian parade has been held in Caracas and street parties are taking place across the country.

President Chavez, who made a surprise return on Monday, followed events from the presidential palace.

It is a key date for Mr Chavez, who says independence hero Simon Bolivar is his inspiration.

The celebrations began at midnight with a fireworks display. Later on Tuesday, an urn containing Venezuela's declaration of independence was opened in the presence of government leaders, with the exception of President Chavez.

Writing on the Twitter social network, Mr Chavez wished his country a happy birthday.

"Oh Venezuela, happy birthday beloved fatherland! Ah, Venezuelans, Venezuelans, today and forever congratulations, brothers mine! Viva Venezuela!!!!", he wrote in Spanish.

Hugo Chavez salutes during a ceremony marking independence, Miraflores Palace, Caracas (5 July 2011) Hugo Chavez inaugurated proceedings, addressing Venezuelans from the presidential palace

Mr Chavez helped get the main parade under way with a live televised address from the presidential palace. But he was unable to attend the parade in person, because of his health.

Described by the official announcer as "birds of peace and progress", Russian-made military jets made a flypast, leaving in their wake trails of smoke in the red, yellow and blue of the Venezuelan flag.

Then came floats depicting themes from Venezuela's past and present.

And to the sound of massed drums and trumpets, soldiers marched past a reviewing stand holding Venezuelan officials and visiting leaders, including three Latin American presidents - Evo Morales of Bolivia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Jose Mujica of Uruguay.

Military delegations came from as far afield as China, Russia and Belarus.

They were followed by civilian groups, including athletes, waving flags or raising their hats in the air.

State television reported that more than 12,000 people took part in the parade.

'Best medicine'

Mr Chavez received a hero's welcome from his supporters on Monday after returning from nearly a month in Cuba.

There had been much speculation whether he would be well enough to be back home in time for the independence celebrations.

Road to the republic

Painting of Simon Bolivar Simon Bolivar (1783 - 1830)
  • 1521: Spanish colonisation begins
  • 1749: First rebellion against Spanish rule
  • 1810: Venezuelan patriots including Bolivar take advantage of Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Spain to declare independence
  • 1811: Independence Act signed
  • 1829-30: Venezuela secedes from Gran Colombia and becomes an independent republic
  • Simon Bolivar: "The Liberator" led 19th Century revolutionary wars against Spain, winning independence for Venezuela and five other South American nations

Speaking from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday, Mr Chavez insisted he would win his health battle.

"The return has begun," he said, thanking the people for their support. "This is the best medicine for whatever illness."

Returning in time for the bicentenary was clearly important for President Chavez, who likes to compare his Socialist revolution with the independence struggle of Simon Bolivar, says the BBC's Sarah Grainger in Caracas.

Mr Chavez, who has led Venezuela for 12 years and survived a coup attempt in 2002, told state TV he was under very strict medical supervision "with medication, rest, meals controlled".

Correspondents say it is still unclear how serious Mr Chavez's condition is or if he will need continued treatment that will leave him weak.

The opposition has been critical of the lack of information surrounding the president's health. For days, officials denied that he was receiving treatment for cancer, saying only that he had undergone surgery for a pelvic abscess.

Chavez's supporters voice their relief that he is back

"What we demand is greater responsibility, not only on the president's part but by all of those high in the government to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president's real situation," opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina told the Associated Press.

During his years in power, President Chavez has built up deep support among the poor by spending on social programmes.

He is still widely expected to run again for the presidency in next year's elections.

But there are growing problems, including high inflation, frequent electricity shortages and a lack of affordable housing.

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