Venezuela VP home from Cuba, no news on ailing Chavez

Hugo Chavez's top lieutenants returned from a visit with the cancer-stricken Venezuelan president in Cuba Thursday, vowing unity and accusing the opposition of an orchestrated campaign to undermine public confidence.

An artist draws next to a painting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on January 3, 2013. Hugo Chavez's top lieutenants returned from a visit with the cancer-stricken Venezuelan president in Cuba Thursday, vowing unity and accusing the opposition of an orchestrated campaign to undermine public confidence.

But Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello shed no new light on the ailing leader's condition more than three weeks after his fourth and most difficult surgery for cancer.

The country's top leaders converged on Havana, where Chavez is convalescing, amid growing demands at home for more detailed information about the president's health and whether he will be fit to take the oath of office on January 10.

Maduro and Cabello appeared on Venezuelan state television upon their return with no warning, as they toured a coffee packaging plant in Caracas that had been taken over by the state.

Both men went out of their way to deny rumors of an internal power struggle between them, with Maduro saying they had sworn before Chavez that they would remain united.

"We are here more united than ever," said Maduro, who is Chavez's handpicked successor. "And we have sworn before comandante Hugo Chavez, and we reaffirmed to him today in our oath ... that we would be united with our people."

At the same time, Maduro lashed out at the opposition, accusing it of "lies and manipulation, a campaign to try to create uncertainty."

"We know that the United States is where these manipulations are being managed," he said. "They think that their time has come. And we have entered a kind of crazy hour of offensive by the right, here and internationally."

It was unclear whether Maduro was referring to US-based Venezuelans or the US government.

Earlier in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied claims that US officials were meddling in Venezuelan affairs, but acknowledged they had been in contact with Venezuelans "from across the political spectrum."

"There's no 'made-in-America' solution here. This has to be something that Venezuelans have to do," Nuland said.

"The message we are giving to Venezuelans of all stripes (is) that we want to see any transition be democratic, be constitutional, be open, be transparent, be legal within Venezuela, and that it has to be decided by Venezuelans."

Chavez has not been seen in public since he underwent a long and complicated surgery 23 days ago for a recurrence of cancer, and officials have acknowledged that his recovery has been difficult.

On Wednesday, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, a close friend and ally of the 58-year-old Venezuelan leader, said he had spoken to his family and his condition was "very worrying."

"Let's hope our prayers will be effective in saving the life of brother President Chavez," Morales said.

Chavez, who was re-elected October 7 despite the debilitating battle with cancer and the strongest opposition challenge yet to his 14-year rule, is supposed to take office in a week for another six-year term.

But it was still unclear whether the longtime leader of OPEC member Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, would be fit enough to serve.

Venezuela's constitution calls for new elections to be held within 30 days if the president is unable to take the oath of office or dies during his first four years in office.

The rector of the Central University of Venezuela, Cecilia Garcia Arocha, proposed sending a team of medical experts to Havana to assess his condition. Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said it should include opposition figures.

Before leaving for Cuba for his fourth round of surgery, Chavez chose Maduro as his successor and left him in charge of the country without formally handing over all of the powers of the presidency.

In the absence of detailed information about Chavez's health, rumors have proliferated, and the main opposition movement had demanded the government "tell the truth" about his condition.

Calls for greater accountability to the public also went out on social networks.

Cancer was first detected by Cuban doctors in June 2011, but the Venezuelan government has never revealed what form of the disease he his battling.

Information about his progress has come in vague, often upbeat comments and tweets by Maduro and a handful of other aides and close allies.

In an update Wednesday, Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, the country's minister of science and technology, said in a tweet that the president's condition was "stable" but still delicate.

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Writer: AFP
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