Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced late Monday night he spoke with sickened President Hugo Chávez by telephone and that the leader is up and walking following cancer surgery in Cuba.
It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official confirmed speaking with Chávez personally since the Dec. 11 operation. Venezuelan officials have given few specifics on Chávez’s condition, and have yet to offer information on his long-term prognosis.
Maduro told state television station Venezolana de Television that the Christmas Eve conversation lasted about 20 minutes. He insisted the president was walking and doing recovery exercises. He added that Chávez had given him guidance on budgetary matters for 2013.
“He was in a good mood,” said Maduro. “He was walking, he was exercising. He wants to send a huge from the comandante to all the girls and boys in the country who will soon be receiving a visit from baby Jesus.”
Venezuelan tradition has it that baby Jesus delivers presidents to children on Christmas, along with Santa Claus.
Maduro’s surprise announcement came after Chávez’s ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, made a visit to Cuba, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the Venezuelan leader’s condition.
Morales was silent Monday on the details concerning his trip or whether he met with the ailing Venezuelan leader.
Morales did not speak to the media while in Havana. Journalists have been summoned to cover his arrival and departure, but hours later that invitation was canceled. No explanation was given, though it could have been due to the confusion over Morales’ itinerary.
Cuban state media published photos of President Raul Castro receiving Morales at the airport and said he came “to express his support” for Chávez, his close ally, but did not give further details.
Morales was the second Latin American leader to visit since Chávez announced two weeks ago that he would have the operation. Rafael Correa of Ecuador came calling the day of the surgery.
The visits underscore Chávez’s importance to regional allies as a prominent voice of the Latin American left, as well as how seriously they are taking his latest bout with cancer.
Chávez underwent his fourth cancer-related operation of the last year-and-a-half on Dec. 11, two months after winning re-election to a six-year term. He was treated for a respiratory infection apparently due to the surgery.
If Chávez is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan constitution calls for new elections to be held. Chávez has asked his followers to back Maduro, his hand-picked successor, in that event.
Earlier Monday, Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement saying that Chávez is showing "a slight improvement with a progressive trend."
Maduro and several Cabinet ministers attended a Christmas Eve Mass in Caracas on Monday afternoon to pray for the president.
The vice president and other officials continued to strongly suggest that Chávez would not return in time for his Jan. 10 inauguration.
Opposition leaders have argued that the constitution does not allow the president's swearing-in to be postponed, and say new elections should be called if Chávez is unable to take the oath on time.
But Attorney General Cilia Flores insisted the constitution lets the Supreme Court administer the oath of office at any time if the National Assembly is unable to do it Jan. 10 as scheduled.
"Those who are counting on that date, hoping to thwart the Revolution and the will of the people, will end up frustrated once again," Flores said. "What we have is a president who has been re-elected, he will take over, will be sworn in on that day, another day, that is a formality."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.