CARACAS, Venezuela, July 6 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led a colorful military parade on the Latin American country's independence bicentennial in defiance of opposition critics' predictions of an impending political and security crisis following his admission of cancer after surgery in Cuba.
The huge parade through the streets of Caracas showed off the latest military acquisitions that Chavez, 56, bought in the heat of a showdown with Colombia over U.S. anti-narcotics operations in that country.
More military hardware is on order, mostly from Russia and mostly on credit, but Venezuela's other defense suppliers last month voiced fears the lavish acquisition program might be at risk while Chavez waited to recover his health.
In keeping with Chavez's populist rhetoric the military showed off its colors, while soldiers painted in the national colors donned colonial uniforms in an arch reminder of Venezuela's past struggles against Spanish colonialism before independence in July 1811.
Security concerns dominated Venezuelan politics in June as Chavez underwent surgery but retained control of the government rather than hand power to an interim caretaker.
Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, Paraguay's Fernando Lugo and Bolivia's Evo Morales attended the celebrations, though critics said all three were flown in aboard the Venezuelan presidential jet at what appeared to be very short notice.
"For my soul, our soul, our spirit, for our struggle for life this is a very powerful and inspiring message, your presence here with me, my good friends, my good companions," said Chavez as he received the leaders in the presidential Miraflores Palace.
Chavez returned from Cuba earlier in the week after undergoing two surgeries linked to cancer. Details of the operations weren't revealed. He said his attendance in the parade was the "beginning of the return."
But opposition critics said the secrecy surrounding Chavez's ailment indicated the government wasn't being frank about the extent of his health problems. His decision not to relinquish power temporarily while undergoing surgery renewed concerns about a possible succession struggle in the event of a deterioration in health.
Former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales said the uncertainty was bad for Venezuela.
"The nation needs a clear message that will end this national and international speculation, as well as the discomfort and suspicion caused by the mysterious silence," Rosales said. Critics said the government's long silence indicates a disregard of its constitutional duties.
The opposition is poised to make the most of Chavez's illness and try and oust him at next year's presidential election.
The military purchases are a sore point with the critics. Tens of billions of dollars of oil revenues pledged and more billions borrowed against future oil sales are a source of renewed controversy because Venezuela has slipped once again into a recessionary slide for a third consecutive year.
Critics said Venezuela's lack of economic growth was proof the government had not performed well enough to engineer an economic recovery or make the best use of Venezuela's oil income.