The mystery surrounding Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's medical condition deepened with the delay of a major regional summit he was due to host next week.
Officials say the anti-American firebrand, who has been in Cuba since beginning an official visit on June 8, is still recovering after being rushed into emergency surgery on June 10 with a painful pelvic abscess.
But the postponement of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which Chavez was due to co-chair on July 5-6, added to rising concern over his lengthy stay in Havana.
|Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez watch the television broadcast of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's medical condition|
The delay suggests the normally omnipresent leftist leader may not make it back to Caracas in time for important celebrations marking the bicentennial of Venezuela's independence from Spain on July 5.
It is also a personal blow as the 56-year-old has been one of the driving forces behind CELAC, which aims to counter the once overwhelming influence of the United States in Latin American politics, and which he hopes will further his ambitions as a regional powerbroker.
CELAC was set up in February as an alternative to the Organization of American States, a regional Americas bloc which, unlike CELAC, includes both the United States and Canada.
The decision to scrap the first CELAC summit on Margarita island off the Venezuelan coast came a day after a video of Chavez with Cuban revolutionary icon Fidel Castro sought to plug rumors about his condition.
Chavez perhaps seemed to have lost some weight but was acting his usual animated self, raising the obvious question of why a summit still a week away had to be scrapped.
The president "is in the midst of a strict process of recovery and medical treatment," the Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a statement on the postponement, without providing further details.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said he had been informed by his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro that Chavez's condition was the reason for the summit delay.
"It was a medical recommendation," Patriota told reporters at a meeting of the regional trade body Mercosur in Paraguay.
Earlier, sources close to CELAC said only that the gathering had been postponed "for now and will be held at another date."
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has built a close relationship with Chavez in contrast to the high tensions between the neighboring South American nations in recent years, lamented the delay.
"I deeply regret the summit was canceled due to the health of President Chavez," he said in Bogota, but adding it was better to say "postponement" than "cancellation" of the meeting.
Chavez's unusual withdrawal from public life has left people in Venezuela speculating that he might have had plastic surgery, could be hiding a more serious ailment or is drumming up sympathy ahead of his 2012 re-election bid.
The Venezuelan government refuses to provide any specifics on his condition, while opposition lawmakers are up in arms in Caracas as many allege it is unconstitutional for the president to be governing from abroad.
A poll released Wednesday by El Universal newspaper found that 59 percent of Venezuelans rejected the idea of the president directing the Venezuelan government from Cuba.
Officials here have however rejected reports in the US press that Chavez was in critical condition following his surgery.
"A picture says more than 1,000 words," Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra said after seeing the video of Chavez, adding that he had personally spoken with his boss.
"We can see him there, very dynamic. We can see that he is recovering."
Izarra said Chavez had a right to take all the time he needed to recover before returning to Venezuela.
Chavez "has not abandoned his constitutional responsibilities; indeed he just called a cabinet meeting to orient us all," Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said Monday, noting there had been no temporary transfer of presidential power