Caracas – Ailing President Hugo Chavez did not preside in person over the official parade marking Tuesday's bicentennial of Venezuelan independence, but three South American heads of state were on hand to show solidarity with their cancer-stricken colleague.
A day after returning to Caracas after being out of the country for almost a month, Chavez inaugurated the parade via a television transmission from the presidential palace.
Surrounded by the Venezuelan military brass, the president greeted Bolivian leader Evo Morales, Uruguay's Jose Mujica and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, who arrived in Caracas unannounced.
The visiting heads of state were accompanied by a score of premiers and foreign ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean who also were on hand along the Paseo de los Proceres in Caracas.
"Long live the homeland, long live independence, we will live and we will overcome," said Chavez in authorizing the start of the parade from his office.
"I'm with you in body, sinew, soul and spirit. Once again, I repeat thank-you, my God, ... thank-you, my people, for having allowed me - despite the great difficulties - to be completely here with you as I am today," said the president.
T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles were joined by mobile rocket-launchers as helicopters and Sukhoi fighter-bombers flew overhead.
"What overflowing Homeland-Passion! What a Bicentennial! What a People! What Soldiers! What pride to be a Soldier of the People of Simon Bolivar!!" and "Thanks to Russia, to its government and to its support, today we certainly have well and truly armed Armed Forces!" Chavez said in successive tweets.
The Chavez administration announced last week that the regional foreign ministers had decided to meet on Tuesday in Venezuela to commemorate the bicentennial.
Chavez's illness forced the postponement of the presidential summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States which had been scheduled for Tuesday in Caracas.
"No one should think that my presence here on this July 4 means we've won the battle. No. But we've begun climbing back uphill, we've begun to defeat the ailment that incubated in my body," Chavez told thousands of cheering supporters Monday from a balcony of the presidential palace hours after his surprise return from Havana.
The 56-year-old Chavez complained of abdominal pain during an official visit to Cuba early last month, and emergency surgery to remove an abscess led to the discovery of cancer, though he did not disclose the seriousness of his condition until last week.
"This battle we will also win, this new battle we will win and we'll win it together," the president said in a 30-minute speech, during which he showed the crucifix that he brandished on April 13, 2002, on his return to Caracas after loyal military commanders thwarted an attempted coup.
The president, flanked by two of his four children, said that the June 20 operation in Havana to remove the cancerous tumor took more than six hours.
Chavez's words were the climax of a day that began in the wee hours with his surprise return to the country after nearly a month in Cuba.
There he underwent an operation for a pelvic abscess, and in the process of recuperation, a tumor was found that was removed "in time" and "completely," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said last weekend.
The president revealed his illness last Thursday in a message to the nation, after which several photos and videos were released of meetings with Cuba's Fidel Castro, family members and aides, but there was no announcement of when he would return to Venezuela.