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Venezuela opposition: Chavez secrecy feeds rumors

Thursday - 1/3/2013, 4:54am  ET

A man walks past a mural of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Both supporters and opponents of Chavez have been on edge in the past week amid shifting signals from the government about the president's health. Chavez has not been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 operation, and officials have reported a series of ups and downs in his recovery. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's opposition demanded that the government reveal specifics of President Hugo Chavez's condition Wednesday, criticizing secrecy surrounding the ailing leader's health more than three weeks after his cancer surgery in Cuba.

Opposition coalition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said at a news conference that the information provided by government officials "continues to be insufficient."

Chavez has not been seen or heard from since the Dec. 11 operation, and Vice President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday said the president's condition remained "delicate" due to complications from a respiratory infection.

Chavez's elder brother, Adan, arrived in Havana on Wednesday, said Jorge Arreaza, the president's son-in-law and science minister. "We're meeting with him, Vice President Maduro and Attorney General Cilia Flores," Arreaza said in a message on Twitter.

"The medical team explains to us that President Chavez's condition continues to be stable within his delicate state," Arreaza said in another message, adding that Chavez "continues battling hard and he sends all his love to our people."

Maduro and other government officials have urged Venezuelans not to heed rumors about Chavez's condition.

Aveledo said the opposition has been respectful during Chavez's illness, and said that "the secrecy is the source of the rumors, which increase the uncertainty and cause distress."

"They should tell the truth," Aveledo said, noting that Maduro had pledged to provide full reports about Chavez's condition. He reiterated the opposition's call for the government to release a medical report and said all indications are that Chavez won't be able to be sworn in to begin a new term Jan. 10.

If Chavez can't take office on that date, Aveledo said the constitution is clear that the National Assembly president should then take over temporarily until a new election is held. He said what happens next in Venezuela should be guided by "the truth and the constitution."

If Chavez dies or is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution says a new election should be held within 30 days.

With rumors swirling that Chavez had taken a turn for the worse, Maduro said on Tuesday that he had met with the president twice and had spoken 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 in the prerecorded interview in Havana, which was broadcast Tuesday night by the Caracas-based television network Telesur.

Both supporters and opponents of Chavez have been on edge in the past week amid shifting signals from the government about the president's health. Officials have reported a series of ups and downs in his recovery -- the most recent, on Sunday, announcing that he faced the new complications from a respiratory infection.

Maduro said on Tuesday that Chavez faces "a complex and delicate situation." But he also said that when he talked with the president and looked at his face, he seemed to have "the same strength as always."

The vice president said he planned to return to Caracas on Wednesday, though there was no confirmation of a return trip as of Wednesday night.

His remarks about the president came at the end of an interview in which he praised Cuba's government effusively and touched on what he called the long-term strength of Chavez's socialist Bolivarian Revolution movement. He mentioned that former Cuban President Fidel Castro had visited the hospital where Chavez was treated.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said procedures under the Venezuelan Constitution should be followed if Chavez is no longer able to carry out his duties as president.

"We want to see any transition take place in a manner that is consistent with the Venezuelan Constitution, that any election be fully transparent, democratic, free and fair," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Wednesday.

Asked if Chavez being out of the picture would make it easier to improve long-strained ties between Venezuela and the U.S., Nuland said, "Obviously we will judge our ability to improve our relationship with Venezuela based on steps they are able to take."

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since July 2010. Chavez rejected the U.S. nominee for ambassador, accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela's government. That led Washington to revoke the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador.

But recently U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats began high-level conversations aimed at improving relations, a U.S. government official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

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