THE Venezuelan government, citing President Hugo Chavez's health problems, on Wednesday cancelled a July 5 and 6 regional summit hours after broadcasting images of him in Havana, a move that raised fresh questions about the gravity of the socialist leader's ailments.

Mr Chavez was due to host the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a hemispheric bloc that excludes the US and Canada. The foreign ministry said he was undergoing a "very strict medical treatment" after an operation to remove a pelvic abscess.

But analysts warned such contradictions would do more harm.

"President Chavez wasn't going to cancel such an important event if his health wasn't worse," Luis Vicente Leon, director of polling firm Datanalisis, said in Caracas yesterday. "This information amplifies the worries that already exist about the president's health. It will set off more rumours."

Mr Chavez had made Latin American integration - which he sees as countering the "imperialist" influence of the US in the region - a centrepiece of his foreign policy, Michael Shifter, the president of public policy centre Inter-American Dialogue, said yesterday .

He said postponing the event proved Mr Chavez had a "serious health problem".

Mr Chavez underwent surgery on June 10 in Cuba. The former paratrooper appeared in a taped broadcast on Wednesday night on state television alongside Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro.

The foreign ministry did not say whether Mr Chavez would return for the 200th anniversary of the country's independence from Spain, also on July 5.

Mr Chavez, who frequently invokes Simon Bolivar in speeches and talks of fulfilling the South American liberator's dream of uniting the continent as one state, has used the bicentenary celebrations as a rallying cry to stoke nationalist sentiment ahead of elections next year. He renamed a chain of supermarkets expropriated last year from France- based Casino Guichard Perrachon the Bicentenary Hypermarket .

Should Mr Chavez fail to attend the public celebrations, his hold on power would appear even more fragile, said Christopher Sabatini of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based international business organisation focusing on the western hemisphere.

"Showing up at the celebrations will only lessen the blow if this has all been a ploy and he appears in full vigour," Mr Sabatini said. "If not, the inherent weakness of the Bolivarian project and of Chavez as a human has been made painfully obvious."

The silence is more acute since he has occupied much of Venezuela's airwaves during his 12 years in power with speeches that have sometimes lasted six hours. Bloomberg