By Daniel Wallis and Diego Ore, Reuters
CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is still suffering a “severe” respiratory infection that has hindered his breathing as he struggles to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba, the government said on Thursday.
The 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public nor heard from in more than three weeks. Officials say he is in delicate condition after his fourth operation in just 18 months for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.
“Comandante Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe lung infection,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in the latest official update on the president’s condition.
“This infection has caused a breathing insufficiency that requires Comandante Chavez to comply strictly with medical treatment,” the communique added, giving no further details.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro had earlier returned to Venezuela on Thursday after visiting Chavez in hospital as rumors swirled that the president could be close to death.
Flanked by senior government figures including Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, Maduro toured a coffee production plant in Caracas – the type of visit that the president made frequently before he fell ill.
“He is conscious of the battle that he’s in, and has the same fighting spirit as always, with the same strength and energy as always, with his confidence and security,” Maduro said. “We’re going to be alongside him with the same strength and the same energy.”
Maduro said Cabello, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Chavez’s elder brother Adan, among others, had all been with the president in the Havana hospital.
Venezuelan bonds rallied to five-year highs earlier on Thursday on rumors that Chavez’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Foreign investors generally hope for a more business-friendly government in Venezuela, and its assets have rallied in recent months on news of his illness.
In scenes that recalled Chavez’s hours-long televised visits to building sites, hospitals and oil refineries, Maduro told workers at the nationalized Fama de America factory that there was no “transition” taking place in the country.
“The only transition in Venezuela is the transition to socialism,” he said in comments carried live by state television.
“It began six years ago, ordered by Comandante Hugo Chavez as chief and president, elected, re-elected and ratified, much as it pains the bourgeois hucksters and the right, who have done so much damage to our fatherland.”
Chavez’s abrupt exit from the political scene would be a huge shock for the South American OPEC nation. His oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor majority but critics call him a dictator.
His condition is being watched closely by Latin American allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela’s lucrative and widely traded debt.