CARACAS: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is "gaining strength" as he finishes post-operative care and enters a "new phase" of cancer treatment, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Sunday.
Chavez anointed Maduro his political heir before flying to Cuba for a fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11. The longtime Venezuelan leader's condition has been the topic of much debate ever since.
Chavez is "finishing the post-operative period and will enter a new phase of treatment," Maduro said. "His vital signs and organ function are stabilizing, he is conscious and gaining strength for the next stage."
The Venezuelan government has been releasing only minimal information on the condition of Chavez, a 58-year-old former paratrooper who first came to power in 1999 and won another six-year term in October elections.
The figurehead of the region's anti-American left could not attend his scheduled inauguration on January 10 because of his poor health, and the swearing-in ceremony has been postponed indefinitely.
The Venezuelan government has admitted that Chavez suffered complications, including a severe pulmonary infection that resulted in "respiratory insufficiency," but has given no long-term prognosis from doctors.
Aides and family members have had to tamp down speculation that Chavez might not make a full recovery. Almost six weeks after he left Venezuela, he is yet to be seen in public and remains, presumably, in a Havana hospital.
Speaking to private Venezuelan television network Televen, Maduro said he had spoken with Chavez on several occasions, including a hospital visit on January 14 when the president "was very interested in oil prices."
Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, which have allowed Chavez to project power across the region.
"We're always optimistic in the sense that sooner or later we will have the president here with us," Maduro said, adding that El Comandante was in good spirits and focused on his treatment.
Tensions are running high in Venezuela amid uncertainty over the future of Chavez, but for now the decision by the Supreme Court to allow the indefinite postponement of the inauguration is being respected.
Venezuela's opposition on Friday canceled a march planned for January 23, saying it feared Chavez's ruling party would "incite violence" with its own parallel mass demonstration.
Last week, the opposition seized on just a few words -- Chavez's stamped signature on a decree -- to demand he clarify how sick he is and what he can and cannot do.
The official government gazette published a decree dated Caracas and carrying the stamped signature of Chavez in which Elias Jaua was named as Venezuela's new foreign minister.
Henrique Capriles, a state governor whom Chavez beat in Venezuela's October presidential election, said it was puzzling that the decree carried the president's name.
"If the president of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to appear, speak to Venezuela and tell us what is happening in this government, because what Venezuela has is 'dis-government'," Capriles said.
Officials have never disclosed the type or severity of Chavez's cancer, saying only that he has had a tumor removed from his pelvic region.
Chavez has been the face of the Latin American left for more than a decade and has dominated the political scene in Venezuela.
Before leaving Caracas, he urged his armed forces to be on the lookout for any attempt, "from outside or from within," to destabilize the country.