CARACAS Nearly two weeks after surgery in Cuba, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is "stronger than ever" but will not rush home until he is ready, his defense minister said on Thursday.
"I call him every day to give him news, he is making great improvement," General Carlos Mata Figueroa told state TV in the latest comment from a Chavez ally aiming to quash speculation the prolonged absence means he may be seriously sick.
"He's getting better ... stronger than ever," the minister added.
At the end of a regional tour on June 10, Chavez underwent an operation in Havana for a swelling in his pelvis and has been out of public sight since, except for one set of photos.
The government originally said he would return "in a few days," but as time has gone by and Chavez has remained in Cuba, rumors have swirled in Venezuela that the 56-year-old former soldier may have something worse like cancer.
His absence has highlighted the socialist leader's total dominance of Venezuelan politics -- not to mention the air-waves -- and the lack of an obvious successor.
"His senior ministers look dull and slightly hapless in his absence, underlining his unique political charisma," said LatinNews, a think tank based in Britain.
With opposition politicians denouncing the secrecy surrounding Chavez's operation as a throwback to Cold War-era authoritarian governments, allies have come out in the last 24 hours to counter the negative publicity.
BACK WITHIN 12 DAYS
Figueroa said Chavez should "take his time" to return, while Chavez's brother said on Wednesday night he would stay in Cuba another 10-12 days before returning.
"To stop the rumors and speculations, I can give evidence of the president's health because I arrived last night from Havana," Adan Chavez told state TV.
"He is recovering satisfactorily."
Chavez's presence in Havana, where allies President Raul Castro and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro are hosting him, is particularly galling to his domestic foes, who accuse him of wanting to bring Cuban-style communism to Venezuela.
A lover of sports, especially baseball, and a notorious workaholic said to keep himself going with copious amounts of coffee, Chavez has presented a vigorous physical image since coming to power 12 years ago.
With a re-election bid looming for late 2012, analysts believe the president is embarrassed at showing a weak side. His operation followed a knee injury and severe colds that sidelined him for several weeks.
Some, however, think the government may turn the situation to its advantage by planning a massive fanfare for Chavez's homecoming, thus garnering sympathy for his suffering but projecting a newly energetic image.
"The vacuum now will amplify the magic of his return ... to show that Superman overcomes all adversities," wrote Luis Vicente Leon, one of Venezuela's best-known pollsters.
Chavez hopes to be back in time to host a July 5 summit of regional leaders. A growing list of problems await him on return, from increasing power blackouts around the OPEC member nation to unrest in prisons.