CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Vice President Nicolas Maduro surprised Venezuelans with a Christmas Eve announcement that President Hugo Chavez is up and walking two weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba, but the news did little to ease uncertainty surrounding the leader's condition.
Sounding giddy, Maduro told state television Venezolana de Television that he had spoken by phone with Chavez for 20 minutes Monday night. It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official had confirmed talking personally with Chavez since the Dec. 11 operation, his fourth cancer surgery since 2011.
"He was in a good mood," Maduro said. "He was walking, he was exercising."
Chavez supporters reacted with relief, but the statement inspired more questions, given the sparse information the Venezuelan government has provided so far about the president's cancer. Chavez has kept secret various details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer. His long-term prognosis remains a mystery.
Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, said it was an encouraging sign that Chavez was walking, and it indicated he would be able to return to Venezuela relatively soon. But he said the long term outlook remained poor.
"It's definitely good news. It means that he is on the road to recover fully from the surgery," Pishvaian said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "The overall prognosis is still pretty poor. He likely has a terminal diagnosis with his cancer that has come back."
Pishvaian and other outside doctors have said that given the details Chavez has provided about his cancer, it is most likely a soft-tissue sarcoma.
Chavez first underwent surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer in Cuba in June 2011 and went back this month after tests had found a return of malignant cells in the same area where tumors were previously removed.
Venezuelan officials said that, following the six-hour surgery two weeks ago, Chavez suffered internal bleeding that was stanched and a respiratory infection that was being treated.
Maduro's announcement came just hours after Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement saying Chavez was showing "a slight improvement with a progressive trend."
Dr. Carlos Castro, director of the Colombian League against Cancer, an association that promotes cancer prevention, treatment and education, said Maduro's announcement was too vague to paint a clear picture of Chavez's condition.
"It's possible (that he is walking) because everything is possible," Castro told AP. "They probably had him sit in up in bed and take two steps."
"It's unclear what they mean by exercise. Was it four little steps?" he added. "I think he is still in critical condition."
Maduro's near-midnight announcement came just as Venezuelan families were gathering for traditional late Christmas Eve dinners and setting off the usual deafening fireworks that accompany the festivities. There was still little outward reaction on a quiet Christmas morning.