CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez alike nervously welcomed the new year Tuesday, left on edge by shifting signals from the government about the Venezuelan leader's condition three weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba.
With rumors swirling that Chavez had taken a turn for the worse, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised interview in Cuba that he had met with the president twice, spoken with him and planned to return to Venezuela on Wednesday.
Maduro said Chavez faces "a complex and delicate situation." But Maduro also said that when he talked with the president and looked at his face, he seemed to have "the same strength as always."
"All the time we've been hoping for his positive evolution. Sometimes he has had light improvements, sometimes stationary situations," Maduro said in the prerecorded interview, which was broadcast Tuesday night by the Caracas-based television network Telesur.
"I was able to see him twice, converse with him. He's totally conscious of the complexity of his post-operative state and he expressly asked us ... to keep the nation informed always, always with the truth, as hard as it may be in certain circumstances," Maduro said.
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since the Dec. 11 operation, and officials have reported a series of ups and downs in his recovery — the most recent, on Sunday, announcing that new complications from a respiratory infection had put the president in a "delicate" state.
Speculation has grown since Maduro announced those latest troubles, which were a sharp shift from his remark nearly a week earlier that the president had been up and walking.
In Tuesday's interview, Maduro did not provide any new details about Chavez's complications. But he joined other Chavez allies in urging Venezuelans to ignore gossip, saying rumors are being spread due to "the hatred of the enemies of Venezuela."
He didn't refer to any rumors in particular, though one of them circulating online had described Chavez as being in a coma.
Political opponents of Chavez have complained that the government hasn't told the country nearly enough about his health.
Maduro's remarks about the president came at the end of an interview in which he praised his government's programs at length, recalled the history of the Cuban revolution and touched on what he called the long-term strength of Chavez's socialist Bolivian Revolution movement.
He mentioned that former Cuban President Fidel Castro had been in the hospital, and praised Cuba's government effusively. "Today we're together on a single path," Maduro said.
Critics in Venezuela sounded off on Twitter while the interview was aired, some saying Maduro sounded like a mouthpiece for the Cuban government. In their online messages, many Chavez opponents criticized a dearth of information provided by Maduro, accusing him of withholding key details about Chavez's condition. Opposition politicians have demanded that the government provide the country with a full medical report.