Venezuelan President Chavez 'improves' after cancer surgery

Supporters pray for Mr Chavez at a Mass in Caracas, December 24
Image caption,
Supporters prayed for Mr Chavez at a Mass in Venezuela's capital, Caracas

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has improved after a cancer operation and has started walking and exercising, the country's vice-president has said.

Nicolas Maduro told state TV he had spoken on the phone to Mr Chavez, describing the call as "the best present we could get this Christmas".

Mr Chavez underwent his fourth cancer operation on 11 December in Cuba but suffered a respiratory infection.

The president - in power since 1999 - won another term in October's election.

Earlier, Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said: "The patient has shown a slight improvement in his condition."

However, no pictures of Mr Chavez after the surgery have been released so far.

Mr Chavez, 58, is scheduled to be sworn in on 10 January.

The lack of any word from Mr Chavez for two weeks prior to the comments by the two senior officials raised serious concerns about his current condition and his ability to attend the swearing-in ceremony.

Bolivian President Evo Morales was in Cuba over the weekend but did not speak to reporters and a Cuban government invitation for media to cover his arrival and departure was withdrawn.

Mr Morales is expected to issue a statement later on Mr Chavez's condition.

The country's constitution states that elections must be held within 30 days if there is an "absolute absence" of the president.

But National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello has said Venezuela will not call fresh elections if President Chavez is unable to be sworn in on 10 January.

Mr Cabello said the swearing-in ceremony would be delayed.

"Since [President] Chavez might not be here on 10 January, [the opposition] hopes the National Assembly will call elections. That's not going to happen. Commandante Hugo Chavez will continue to be our president," Mr Cabello said.

According to Mr Cabello, the constitution allows him to be sworn in before Supreme Court justices, but it does not stipulate when or where.

Mr Chavez has said Venezuelans should vote for Mr Maduro in fresh elections, should his health fail.