CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's condition has "improved slightly" after a cancer operation in Cuba, the information minister said on Monday, amid doubts over whether the former soldier is in good enough health to continue governing.
"The patient has shown a slight improvement in his condition," Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said during a terse televised statement, adding the president has maintained contact with family members.
Chavez has not been heard from in two weeks following a fourth operation for an unspecified type of cancer in the pelvic region. The government has said he suffered post-operatory complications including unexpected bleeding and a lung infection, but offered few details about his actual condition.
His death, or even his resignation for health reasons, would upend the politics of the South American OPEC nation where his personalized brand of oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor but a pariah to critics who call him a dictator.
His allies are now openly discussing the possibility that he may not be back in time to be sworn in for his third six-year term on the constitutionally mandated date of January 10.
Opposition leaders say a delay to his taking power would be another signal that Chavez is not in condition to govern and that fresh elections should be called to choose his replacement.
They believe they have a better shot against Chavez's anointed successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, than against the charismatic president who for 14 years has been nearly invincible at the ballot box.
But a constitutional dispute over succession could lead to a messy transition toward a post-Chavez era.
Maduro has become the government's main figurehead in the president's absence. His speeches have mimicked Chavez's bombastic style that mixes historical references with acid insults of adversaries.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential vote, slammed Maduro in an interview published on Sunday for failing to seek dialogue with the opposition at a time of political uncertainty.
"Maduro is not the one that won the elections, nor is he the leader," Capriles told the local El Universal newspaper. "Because Chavez is absent, this is precisely the time that (Maduro) needs help from people (in the opposition camp)."
Chavez has vastly expanded presidential powers and built a near-cult following among millions of poor Venezuelans, who love his feisty language and social welfare projects.
The opposition is smarting from this month's governors elections in which Chavez allies won 20 of 23 states. They are trying to keep attention focused on day-to-day problems from rampant crime to power outages.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Sandra Maler)