CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said late Monday night that he had spoken by telephone with President Hugo Chavez and that the leader is up and walking following cancer surgery in Cuba.
It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official had confirmed speaking personally with Chavez since the Dec. 11 operation. Venezuelan officials have given few specifics on Chavez'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 said the president was walking and doing some recovery exercises. He added that Chavez had given him guidance on budgetary matters for 2013.
"He was in a good mood," Maduro said. "He was walking, he was exercising."
"He wants to send a hug from the comandante to all the girls and boys in the country who will soon be receiving a visit from baby Jesus," he added. Venezuelan tradition has it that baby Jesus delivers gifts to children on Christmas, along with Santa Claus.
Maduro's surprise announcement came after Chavez's ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, made a lightning visit to Cuba that had added to the uncertainty surrounding the Venezuelan leader's condition.
Morales was largely silent Monday on the details of his trip or even whether he met with the ailing Venezuelan leader.
Morales did not speak to the foreign media while in Havana. Journalists had 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 confusion over Morales' itinerary as he apparently arrived later than initially scheduled.
Cuban state media published photos of President Raul Castro receiving Morales at the airport and said he came "to express his support" for Chavez, his close ally, but did not give further details.
At an event in southern Bolivia on Monday, Morales made no mention of his trip to Cuba, even though aides had told reporters that he might say something about Chavez's recovery. Later, Morales' communications minister did not respond directly to a question about whether the two South American presidents had met face-to-face, saying only that he "was with the people he wanted to be with" and had no plans to return to Cuba.
"The report that President Morales has given us is that Chavez is in a process of recovery after the terrible operation he underwent," Amanda Davila told The Associated Press.
Morales was the second Latin American leader to visit since Chavez announced two weeks ago that he would have the operation. Rafael Correa of Ecuador came calling the day of the surgery.
The visits underscore Chavez'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.
Chavez 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 Chavez is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan constitution calls for new elections to be held. Chavez 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 Chavez is showing "a slight improvement with a progressive trend."
Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster who heads the Venezuelan firm Datanalisis, said that the government's daily but vague updates on the president's health seem designed to calm anxious Chavez supporters rather than keep the country fully informed. For government opponents, however, he said the updates likely raise more questions than they answer.
"It's more for the Chavez movement than the country in general," Leon said. "There's nothing that one can verify, and the credibility is almost nil."
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 Chavez 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 Chavez 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."