Venezuelans on edge amid shifting news on Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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."