CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's government postponed next week's summit of Latin American leaders Wednesday, citing President Hugo Chavez's health as he recovers from surgery in Cuba.
The decision to put off the July 5-6 meeting until later this year was announced shortly after new videos aired on state television showing Chavez chatting with Fidel Castro in Cuba, appearing lucid and talkative. Chavez's televised appearance broke a long post-surgery silence that has prompted speculation about his health.
"The president is in the middle of a recuperation process and extremely strict medical treatment," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
As a result, it said, Venezuela has consulted with other governments and "made the decision to postpone" the gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders on Margarita Island.
Chavez had been expected to host the summit on the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence from Spain. He promoted it as an event to lay the groundwork for a new regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, that would exclude the United States and Canada.
The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said it will work with other countries to schedule a new date for the summit in Venezuela later in the year. It remained unclear how soon Chavez might be able to return home.
Footage of Tuesday's encounter in Cuba showed Chavez and Castro in a garden chatting amiably about old times and discussing a Cuban newspaper article about school uniforms. It then cut to them seated indoors having an animated conversation.
"Today's newspaper, today's front page," Chavez said, reading the headlines in the Venezuelan state newspaper El Correo del Orinoco.
They talked about socialism and laughed as Chavez recalled a visit by Castro to Venezuela years ago when they ventured down a jungle path through vines.
Chavez has been largely out of sight since the government announced June 10 that he had undergone pelvic surgery. He spoke once in a telephone call to state television two days after the operation, and appeared in photographs alongside both Fidel and Raul Castro that were published June 18.
A series of photos and short video clips were shown on Cuban and Venezuelan television Tuesday night, but the footage shown Wednesday was longer and included audio of their conversation.
Vice President Elias Jaua told Venezuelan state television that the latest images show that the 56-year-old Chavez is clearly getting better.
"The president is in the process of recuperating, and he has a right to recuperate," Jaua said. "He has the right to take the time necessary to recuperate."
He said Chavez was on top of his duties and worked on military issues and other matters Wednesday. He did not provide other details about Chavez's health, nor say when he was expected to return home.
Venezuelan and Cuban state television both aired the footage, which lasted about 20 minutes. It began with Chavez arriving and greeting Castro with a salute and the slogan "Fatherland or death, we will be victorious!"
The two stood outdoors with palm trees in the background, surrounded by attendants. Castro wore a blue track suit jacket and a red cap of Cuba's national baseball team, and Chavez had on a warm-up jacket in the colors of the Venezuelan flag.
They both read aloud from the front pages of official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde, and discussed current events and moments in Latin American history such as the 1973 coup in Chile.
Chavez recalled a conversation with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega about that country's history.
He also reminisced about his days as an army paratrooper, saying: "The first time I jumped out of a plane was also the first time I flew in one."
After a cut, the two were seen walking and then indoors chatting with Chavez's daughters and a granddaughter, who also read from Granma.
Chavez has said the surgery removed a pelvic abscess, yet a lack of details about his condition has fed speculation in Venezuela that the president might be seriously ill.
Some of Chavez's political opponents were not convinced Chavez looked healthy in the latest videos, and said he appeared thinner than usual.
Jaua has led government events in Chavez's absence and the leftist president's elder brother, Adan, rallied supporters at a Sunday prayer meeting for Chavez's health.
Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a Chavez ally, said before the announcement of the summit cancellation that he expected the Venezuelan leader to be home in time for the country's independence anniversary July 5.
Speaking on a television program in Uruguay on Tuesday night, Mujica joked that "Fidel Castro kidnapped Chavez to ensure his recovery."
"Chavez is very temperamental," Mujica said. "They operated on him and he needs about 20-something days of recovery. Fidel practically kidnapped him, didn't let him go, because he didn't trust that in Venezuela (Chavez) would pay attention to the treatments."
Mujica didn't say whether he had spoken with Venezuelan or Cuban officials about Chavez's condition.