Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's vice president, has announced that President Hugo Chavez is up and walking two weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba, but the news did little to ease uncertainty surrounding the leader's condition.
Sounding giddy, Maduro told state television Venezolana de Television that he had spoken by phone with Chavez for 20 minutes on Monday night. It was the first time a top Venezuelan government official had confirmed talking personally with Chavez since the December 11 operation, his fourth cancer surgery since 2011.
"He was in a good mood," Maduro said. "He was walking, he was exercising."
Chavez supporters reacted with relief, but the statement inspired more questions, given the sparse information the Venezuelan government has provided so far about the president's cancer.
Chavez has kept secret various details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer. His long-term prognosis remains a mystery.
Maduro's announcement came just hours after Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement saying Chavez was showing "a slight improvement with a progressive trend".
Chavez first underwent surgery for an unspecified type of pelvic cancer in Cuba in June 2011 and went back this month after tests had found a return of malignant cells in the same area where tumors were previously removed.
Venezuelan officials said that, following the six-hour surgery two weeks ago, Chavez suffered internal bleeding that was stanched and a respiratory infection that was being treated.
Over the weekend, Chavez's ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, made a lightning visit to Cuba that only added to the uncertainty.
Cuban state media published photos of President Raul Castro receiving Morales at the airport and said he came "to express his support'' for Chavez, but did not give further details. He left on Sunday without making any public comments.
Yet more questions surround Chavez's political future, with the surgery coming two months after he won re-election to a six-year term.
If he is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution calls for new elections to be held. Chavez has asked his followers to back Maduro, his hand-picked successor, in that event.
Venezuelan officials have said Chavez might not return in time for his January 10 inauguration.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he was ready to accept a possible delay in the inauguration.
"If the president cannot be present on January 10 to take the oath of office before the National Assembly, the constitution has the answers," said Capriles, who lost the presidential election in October to Chavez.
His remarks put him at odds with other opposition leaders eager to call new elections if Chavez is unable to return to the country on time.
Opposition leaders have argued that the constitution does not allow the president's swearing-in to be postponed, and say new elections should be called if Chavez is unable to take the oath on time.
But government officials have said the constitution lets the Supreme Court administer the oath of office at any time if the National Assembly is unable to do it January 10 as scheduled.