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Chavez surgery mars Venezuela independence bash

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 1 Jul 2011 14:35 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* President recovering in Cuba from operation for cancer

* Chavez had long looked forward to the celebrations

* Streets cleaned, military preparing for parade

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, July 1 (Reuters) - Tanks are rumbling into Caracas, flags are up for street parties and pot-holed roads are getting a makeover -- but the main act looks sure to miss Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain.

President Hugo Chavez, in Cuba after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, has little hope of being at Tuesday's national party that he had looked forward to for years.

Having canceled a regional summit planned to coincide with the July 5 festivities, the colorful socialist leader would have loved to preside over the bash.

For years, he has cast himself as the reincarnation of independence hero Simon Bolivar and gleefully taken over from Cuba's Fidel Castro as Washington's main irritant in Latin America.

But Chavez's dramatic announcement on Thursday night that he had been treated for cancer seemed to dash any hope of being home in time for more political grandstanding on Tuesday. [ID:nCHAVEZ]

Venezuelan officials plan to go ahead with rallies and the military parade. Helicopters and jets have been buzzing over Caracas during practice fly-bys.

Fans of the "El Comandante," who inspires love and loathing in equal measure across polarized Venezuela, are sure to fill the day with "get well" slogans.

"The bicentennial celebration belongs to the government, and that belongs to Chavez. Everything belongs to Chavez," said soldier Frank Albarao, 23, painting yellow lines in a car park in a shanty town overlooking the presidential palace. "He is strong."

Painting a "200" mural on a wall next to his portrait of Chavez, Tom Mansfeld, 21, said he was confident the president would recover and return soon. "There's no fear here."

ECHOES OF BOLIVAR

Chavez had long worked toward this independence day. He even stamped the name "Bicentennial" on a nationalized supermarket chain and a group of banks his government took over last year.

A big event for any nation, the anniversary is particularly significant for Chavez since he claims to have brought real "independence" to Venezuela since 1999 by overturning the grip of previous "capitalist oligarchies".

That, say foes, is balderdash -- with Venezuela's proud democratic history only now eroded by a Chavez autocracy.

"Pretending to be the president from Havana is totally unacceptable and unconstitutional," said Maria Corina Machado, an opposition leader who is furious Chavez has not named a temporary substitute during his stay in Cuba.

"He believes he can do as he wishes. He is wrong, profoundly wrong," she told Reuters.

The ever theatrical Chavez will miss the chance to grandstand -- as he loves at big events -- and wave the sword of Bolivar, which always whips up his crowd.

While the ubiquitous murals of a dashing-looking Bolivar are being touched up around Venezuela, one of his better-known sayings is -- as usual -- missing from official propaganda.

Before his death in 1830 from tuberculosis, lonely and disillusioned, Bolivar declared the region's people to be "ungovernable."

"Those who have served the cause of the revolution have plowed the sea," he said. (Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Kieran Murray)

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