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President Hugo Chavez is making progress as he recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba, his vice president said Tuesday after returning from a trip to Havana to visit the Venezuelan leader.
Chavez, who has been battling complications since undergoing surgery more than a month ago, is “climbing the hill, he is advancing,” said Vice-President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro, who returned overnight after a three-day visit to Havana, said he and other top officials had spoken with Chavez over the past few days about national matters in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.
“We saw him up until Tuesday,” Maduro told a governors' meeting, adding that they had updated the ailing leader on “how our people are progressing.”
The government's most recent status report on Chavez's health said he had shown improvement in recent days but is still suffering from a “respiratory insufficiency” caused by a severe pulmonary infection.
In office since 1999, Chavez was too sick to make it to his own inauguration on January 10, so his swearing-in has been indefinitely postponed.
Congress approved the delay and the Supreme Court upheld it, much to the chagrin of opposition parties. Chavez was re-elected October 7 to a third six year term.
Since being diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011 he has undergone surgery four times, with the government giving no indication of the type or severity of his cancer, saying only that he has had a tumour removed from his pelvic region.
Filling in for Chavez, Maduro addressed the National Assembly later on Tuesday in a speech summing up the state of the country as of the end of 2012. Before leaving for Havana a month ago, Chavez appointed Maduro as his political heir.
Maduro told lawmakers Chavez had decided to name former vice president Elias Jaua, 43, as foreign minister, a post Maduro currently holds.
Opposition figure Henrique Capriles, whom President Chavez defeated in October's presidential race, questioned the legality of the appointment.
“The only way for a minister to be named is by the president of the Republic. If Maduro is signing that document, then he would be acting as interim president,” Capriles said.
But the government maintains that there has been no naming of an interim president and that Chavez is conscious and communicating with family and cabinet members, though not in Venezuelan media.
But many in Venezuela find it hard to believe that Chavez - a flamboyant and near constant fixture on television and radio for more than a decade - would not address the nation in some way if he were able to do so.
Chavez's absence, combined with his decision to be treated in secrecy in strictly controlled communist Cuba, has fuelled questions about his health and the future of his leftist “Bolivarian Revolution.”
The address delivered by Maduro is mandated by the constitution and Tuesday was the last day it could be delivered. The address has to be delivered in person, and when Chavez gave it a year ago, he spoke for nine hours.
Venezuelan opposition leaders are angry that the Chavez government remains in power even though he missed his scheduled inauguration last week.
They say that, according to the constitution, the speaker of the National Assembly should temporarily assume the presidency.
Meanwhile, the United States and Colombia said on Tuesday that any political transition undertaken in Venezuela must respect its constitution.
The appeal was made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Colombian counterpart, Maria Angela Holguin, who met in Washington and discussed the situation in Venezuela, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Clinton and Holguin discussed prospects for change in Venezuela and said any transition should be transparent and democratic, Nuland said.
The United States has had tense relations with Venezuela under Chavez, who has irked Washington by depicting the United States as an imperialist power and forging ties with countries such as Iran, Syria and Cuba.