CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Army tanks and soldiers in fatigues joined government supporters on Monday in the streets of Venezuela's capital in demonstrations commemorating the anniversary of a failed coup attempt led by Hugo Chavez in 1992.
The ailing president was absent for the first time from the annual event as thousands marched through Caracas wearing the red T-shirts of his socialist movement. Chavez remained in Cuba, where he has been out of sight and hasn't spoken publicly since he underwent cancer surgery on Dec. 11.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro read aloud a letter from Chavez in which the president said he was sorry to miss the celebration "but it is required by this battle that I'm fighting for my full recovery."
"My spirit and my heart are among you all on this day," Chavez said in the letter, calling for his supporters to remain united. "I'm with you all, wearing my red beret."
Maduro told the crowd near the presidential palace that he is confident Chavez will be back for the event next year.
Maduro and other officials also launched a new symbol for the president's movement at Monday's rallies: a baseball cap emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of Venezuela's flag.
Maduro and other top officials all donned the same cap, which also has the stars from the flag and the national seal, as well as a silhouette of Chavez's face and "4F," referring to the Feb. 4, 1992, coup attempt.
The cap was similar to one used by opposition leader Henrique Capriles in the campaign ahead of the country's October presidential vote, when Chavez won another term. But Maduro called it the "revolutionary cap."
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who participated in the coup attempt along with Chavez, some government opponents "have wanted to say it belong to them. No, friend. This cap has long been a symbol of the Bolivarian Revolution."
"Since they're rogues, little crooks, they robbed this cap and started to use it," Cabello told the crowd.
Maduro and Cabello also presided over a military ceremony where which two portraits of Chavez were unveiled. They presented awards to some of the men who joined the rebellion, and Maduro praised what he said was an event that "woke up our homeland."
Chavez was a lieutenant colonel when he led the rebellion against then-President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. Chavez was captured and imprisoned when the coup failed, and later was pardoned.
Fighter jets thundered overhead during the military ceremony. Tanks rolled onto an avenue in western Caracas to commemorate soldiers' participation in the coup attempt.
Thousands of supporters and government employees marched through the streets, some of them holding up photos of Chavez while drummers played a festive beat.
State television replayed images of the moment in 1992 when Chavez was allowed to speak on television after his capture and urged his followers to lay down their arms, saying their efforts had failed "for now."
Chavez's short speech, and those two words, helped launch his political career. Chavez was first elected president in 1998 and was re-elected to another six-year term in October even as he struggled with an unspecified type of pelvic cancer.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro said on Sunday that Chavez is now "much better, recovering" after his latest cancer surgery.
"It has been a tough struggle, but he has been improving," Castro was quoted as saying by Communist Party newspaper Granma. "We have to cure him. Chavez is very important for his country and for Latin America."
Cabello traveled to Havana last week to visit Chavez, and on Monday said the president had told him to send hugs to his "comrades-in-arms." The National Assembly president wore fatigues and a red beret as he spoke on television in front of a black-and-white image of a young Chavez.
"El Comandante is headed toward his recovery, getting better every day, signing what we take him, giving instructions, giving orders," Cabello said. "And from there in Havana he sent you all a hug ... and thanks for so much love."
Cabello, an influential leader in Chavez's party, also dismissed accusations by government opponents that Cuba's leaders appear to be influencing the Venezuelan government's actions during Chavez's absence.
"Now we're a colony of Cuba, according to them," Cabello told soldiers and government supporters. "Today they're attacking our sister Cuba, the Cuba to which we're very thankful for the enormous determination it has put into the healing of our commander."
Maduro rallied the crowd saying: "We're all Chavez. We're all soldiers of the fatherland."
But government opponents criticized Monday's anniversary events, saying there is nothing worth celebrating in a coup attempt that left dozens dead.
Capriles said in messages on Twitter that for many Venezuelans, the date simply marks a failed coup and nothing more.
The opposition leader said he feels solidarity with members of the military for what he called "today's Dante-esque spectacle by Al Capone." Capriles didn't say whether he was referring to Maduro or Cabello.
Government militia troops joined the anniversary events along with soldiers.
Cabello spoke for those in the military saying: "We love commander Chavez. We love him like a father, like a brother."
The legislative chief also reiterated calls for loyalty and unity.
"United, the people and the armed forces guarantee the Bolivarian Revolution," Cabello said, referring to the socialist-inspired movement that takes its name from 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.