UPDATE 3-Hugo Chavez's condition improving - Venezuela

Andrew Cawthorne
Reuters Middle East

* Latest health update says lung infection controlled

* Powerful government trio meet Castro, check on Chavez

* Venezuelan leader still unseen since Dec. 11 operation

* Opposition demand "truth" on president's condition

CARACAS, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Cancer-stricken Venezuelan

President Hugo Chavez's lung infection has been controlled and

his medical state is improving more than a month after his

latest surgery in Cuba, the government said on Sunday.

"Despite his delicate state ... in recent days the general

medical evolution has been favorable," said the latest official

health update, which was relatively positive compared to others

but still illustrated the gravity of Chavez's situation.

"The respiratory infection is controlled, though the

commander-president still requires specific measures to solve

breathing insufficiency ... he is conscious."

The communique, which gave no more details on his condition,

came as the three most powerful government figures after Chavez

gathered in Havana to check on him and meet with Cuban allies.

Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Congress head Diosdado

Cabello, and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez have been shuttling to

and from Cuba since the 58-year-old socialist president's fourth

and most serious cancer operation a month ago.

Chavez, who missed his own inauguration for a new, six-year

term last week, has not been seen or heard from in public since

the surgery. Many Venezuelans are assuming his momentous 14-year

rule of the South American OPEC nation could be nearing an end.

"We are all Chavez!" and "Chavez will return!" were among

slogans sang and chanted at numerous solidarity rallies,

meetings and concerts across Venezuela over the weekend, which

drew thousands of passionate and anxious supporters.


Venezuelan state TV on Sunday even split its screen into

four to show events going on around the nation.

"The situation is complex and delicate," Elias Jaua, a

former vice-president and ally of Chavez, told one rally.

"He continues battling for his life."

Villegas said Maduro, whom Chavez has designated his

successor, informed his boss of the outpouring at home.

State media said Maduro, Cabello, Ramirez - who also heads

the powerful state oil company PDVSA - and Attorney General

Cilia Flores all met Cuban President Raul Castro over the

weekend. But there were no details of the talks.

The joint presence of top Venezuelan officials in Havana

inevitably deepens rumors that Chavez is at death's door - and

draws opposition criticism that Raul and Fidel Castro are giving

instructions behind the scenes.

"We know which commander is giving the orders to Chavista

leaders," opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado tweeted

sarcastically, in a reference to the Cuban president.

Officials have been lashing "necrophilic" opponents for such

criticism, and Chavez's brother said on Saturday that he was

improving daily and not in a coma as rumored.

Another opposition leader, Julio Borges, said the secrecy

around Chavez's precise condition was unacceptable.

"No one is asking for details of the operation or the

president's treatment, but that simply they tell the truth about

his health prognosis," said Borges, a right-wing legislator who

wants Chavez formally declared absent from office.


That would trigger the naming of a caretaker president, and

an election within a month. But Venezuela's Supreme Court has

ratified that Chavez remains president with Maduro in charge as

No. 2 until Chavez's health situation is clarified.

"It's been a year-and-a-half of contradictions and

announcements of his complete curing followed by relapses,"

Borges added, saying problems like inflation, housing shortages

and power-cuts were being neglected during a political impasse.

Since the disease was discovered in mid-2011, Chavez has

wrongly declared himself cured twice, in an extraordinary and

unsettling saga for Venezuela's 29 million people.

The stakes are high for the wider region too. Cuba and a

handful of other leftist-ruled nations have for years been

depending on Chavez's aid to bolster fragile economies.

Should Chavez die or be incapacitated, the most likely next

step would be an election pitting Maduro, 50, against Henrique

Capriles, 40, the main opposition leader who lost to Chavez in

an October presidential election.

In an opinion column on Sunday, Capriles railed against the

"national paralysis" but said the opposition would not be drawn

into confrontation or street protests. That tactic failed

spectacularly for them a decade ago when Chavez was briefly

toppled but came back stronger than before.

"Just as the president has the right to attend his ill

health, so Venezuelans do not deserve urgent problems to be put

on hold," Capriles said. "We are not going to play the game of

calling people onto the street to create a confrontation that

will benefit the violent and radical ones."

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