CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is doing well as he receives medical treatment in Cuba, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday, despite a two-week absence from public view that has raised fresh doubts about his health.
Chavez, 58, said in a letter to parliament on Tuesday he was returning to Havana for "hyperbaric oxygenation," which is used to treat bone decay caused by radiation therapy. The president has undergone three cancer operations in Cuba since mid-2011.
No images were published of his departure from Caracas or of his arrival on the communist-led island, fuelling speculation among many Venezuelans about whether the latest twist was normal post-radiation treatment, or a more serious downturn.
"They are carrying out therapies to strengthen his health even more. The president is good, he is very good, and he is going to get much better," Maduro told a meeting with workers that was broadcast live by Venezuelan state TV.
The usually garrulous socialist leader has made few public appearances since winning a new six-year term in an election in October. His campaign was more subdued than usual, and he said afterward that radiation therapy had left him exhausted.
Chavez has open-ended authorization from legislators to travel, but aims to be back at least for the January 10 start of his new term, if not for a couple of regional summits before then.
His latest absence has put renewed attention on Maduro, his vice president, and on Congress head Diosdado Cabello, two close and powerful allies of the president who might look to replace him if Chavez were to leave power.
Under the South American country's constitution, an election would have to be held if Chavez were to leave office within the first four years of his next six-year term.
'FULFILLING THE PEOPLE'S MANDATE'
Maduro called on all Venezuelans to "respect" Chavez as he received treatment, and said voters on the campaign trail had urged the president to focus on his health.
"In every town, they told him, 'Take care of yourself president, be disciplined with your treatment.' And that is exactly what he's doing now: fulfilling the people's mandate."
As usual, security was tight outside Havana's Cimeq hospital, where Chavez is receiving treatment as a guest of his friend and political mentor, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"We're happy to be able to help Chavez," said local community worker Guillermo Fonseca, 59, as he hefted a trash can across a nearby street.
"We don't see him as a big chief, we see him as a friend, a brother, a family member who needs us. Chavez didn't think twice about helping us, for example after Hurricane Sandy struck."
Chavez's return to the Caribbean island could be a blow to ruling Socialist Party candidates who wanted him to campaign alongside them before elections for state governors on December 16. A prolonged absence could also postpone big policy decisions, such as a widely expected devaluation of the bolivar currency.
Given investor hopes for a more market-friendly government in the continent's top oil exporter, Venezuela's widely traded bonds have risen this week.
The prices of the government's benchmark Global 27 note and state oil company PDVSA's closely watched 2022 bond are up about 3.7 percent and 4.0 percent respectively since Monday.
(Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in Havana; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Peter Cooney)
Our top photos from the last 24 hours.