Caracas: 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.
Even some of his supporters said on Tuesday that they wished they knew more.
"We're distressed by El Comandante's health," said Francisca Fuentes, who was walking through a downtown square with her grandchildren. "I think they aren't telling us the whole truth. It's time for them to speak clearly. It's like when you have a sick relative and the doctor lies to you every once in a while."
Chavez has been fighting an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June 2011. He has declined to reveal the precise location of the tumors that have been surgically removed. The president announced on Dec. 8, two month after winning re-election, that his cancer had come back despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
"There's nothing we can do except wait for the government to deign to say how he is really," said Daniel Jimenez, an opposition supporter who was in a square in an affluent Caracas neighborhood.
Jimenez and many other Venezuelans say it seems increasingly unlikely that Chavez can be sworn in as scheduled Jan. 10 for his new term.
Venezuelans rang in 2013 as usual with fireworks raining down all over the capital of Caracas. But some of Chavez's supporters had long faces as they gathered in Bolivar Plaza on Monday night holding pictures of the president. A government-sponsored New Year's Eve celebration there had been called off, and instead his supporters strummed guitars and read poetry in Chavez's honor.
Maduro didn't discuss the upcoming inauguration plans, saying only that he's hopeful Chavez will improve.
Chavez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October, three months after he announced that his latest tests showed him to be cancer-free. If he dies or is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution says a new election should be held within 30 days.
Before his operation, Chavez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election was necessary.
The vice president said that Chavez "has faced an illness with courage and dignity, and he's there fighting, fighting."
"Someone asked me yesterday by text message: How is the president? And I said, 'With giant strength,'" Maduro said. He recalled taking Chavez by the hand, saying "he squeezed me with gigantic strength as we talked."