President Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's three most powerful government figures after President Hugo Chavez gathered in Havana on Sunday to check on their ailing leader's condition 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, reports Reuters.
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.
Though acknowledging the gravity of the situation and a severe lung infection Chavez is suffering, officials are trying to stay upbeat on the president's hopes for recovery. His brother on Saturday denied that Chavez was in a coma.
"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 drawing thousands of passionate and anxious supporters.
Venezuelan state TV on Sunday split its screen into four to show events going on around the nation. "Commander, take your time returning to us," Trujillo state Governor Henry Rangel said at one.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Maduro, who Chavez recently designated as his successor, informed Venezuela's leader of the outpouring at home. He gave no more details of their encounter or the president's condition.
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 Chavez is at death's door - and draws opposition criticism that Raul and Fidel Castro are giving instructions behind the scenes.
But officials have been lashing "necrophilic" opponents for such speculation, and Chavez's brother said on Saturday that, on the contrary, he was improving daily.