SANTIAGO Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's cancer-stricken president, made his presence felt at a regional summit on Monday with a flowery letter from his sickbed in Cuba that was laced with literary references and calls for Latin American unity.
Chavez has not been seen in public since cancer surgery in Cuba in mid-December, missing his own inauguration for a new six-year term this month and fuelling uncertainty over the illness jeopardizing his 14-year rule.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who Chavez has named as his preferred successor, read the 15-minute long, typed letter to heads of state gathered in Chile.
"I'm sorry I can't attend this meeting in Santiago de Chile, but as you all know, since December I've been battling once again for my health," read the letter, which was sprinkled with quotes from well-known Latin American writers including Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
The absence of the loquacious leader was conspicuous at the CELAC-European Union summit in Chile, as many foreign leaders and diplomats fret about the stability of the OPEC nation.
Chavez's fiery leftist rhetoric often made headlines at regional gatherings. Five years ago at another summit in Chile, Spain's king famously told Chavez to "shut up."
The socialist president was a driving force behind the creation of the CELAC, or Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which was established in 2011 in a drive to increase regional integration and counter U.S. influence in the hemisphere.
In Monday's letter, he called for even closer unity.
"Now more than ever, we can say that we have truly followed in the footsteps of our liberators."
(Reporting by Helen Popper and Alejandro Lifschitz; editing by Philip Barbara)