By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Ore
CARACAS Dec 24 Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
is improving after a cancer operation in Cuba and has started
exercising, officials said on Monday, amid doubts over whether
the former soldier is in good enough health to continue
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said he had spoken by phone
with Chavez, who was walking and doing exercises as part of his
"We've gotten the best present we could get this Christmas:
a phone call from our commander president," Maduro said on state
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said earlier in the
day that Chavez had "shown a slight improvement in his
condition," without providing details.
Chavez has not been heard from in two weeks following a
fourth operation for an unspecified type of cancer in the pelvic
region. The government has said he suffered post-operatory
complications including unexpected bleeding and a lung
infection, but offered few details about his actual condition.
His death, or even his resignation for health reasons, would
upend the politics of the South American OPEC nation where his
personalized brand of oil-financed socialism has made him a hero
to the poor but a pariah to critics who call him a dictator.
His allies are now openly discussing the possibility that he
may not be back in time to be sworn in for his third six-year
term on the constitutionally mandated date of Jan. 10.
Opposition leaders say a delay to his taking power would be
another signal that Chavez is not in condition to govern and
that fresh elections should be called to choose his replacement.
They believe they have a better shot against Maduro,
Chavez's anointed successor, than against the charismatic
president who for 14 years has been nearly invincible at the
But a constitutional dispute over succession could lead to a
messy transition toward a post-Chavez era.
Maduro has become the government's main figurehead in the
president's absence. His speeches have mimicked Chavez's
bombastic style that mixes historical references with acid
insults of adversaries.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in
the October presidential vote, slammed Maduro in an interview
published on Sunday for failing to seek dialogue with the
opposition at a time of political uncertainty.
"Maduro is not the one that won the elections, nor is he the
leader," Capriles told the local El Universal newspaper.
"Because Chavez is absent, this is precisely the time that
(Maduro) needs help from people (in the opposition camp)."
Chavez has vastly expanded presidential powers and built a
near-cult following among millions of poor Venezuelans, who love
his feisty language and social welfare projects.
The opposition is smarting from this month's governors
elections in which Chavez allies won 20 of 23 states. They are
trying to keep attention focused on day-to-day problems from
rampant crime to power outages.