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Venezuela in suspense as Chavez absent two months

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro (R) looks at a portrait of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on February 4, 2013
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro (R) looks at a portrait of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during the conmemoration of the 1992 failed coup led by Chavez, in Caracas, on February 4, 2013. Chavez vanished from public view two months ago Sunday, w

Hugo Chavez vanished from public view two months ago Sunday, with Venezuela still in suspense over its political future despite assurances its cancer-stricken president is getting better and back in charge.

The latest information on Chavez's condition came Friday from Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who read a message from the ailing leader after visiting him in the Cuban capital Havana where he has been convalescing from a fourth round of cancer surgery.

"I am in a process of slow recovery, but I am in the battle," Maduro read.

In Chavez's absence, and ostensibly with his approval, his government has begun to move on some pressing issues, announcing a steep devaluation of the national currency on Friday.

The bolivar's markdown from 4.3 to 6.3 to the dollar had been widely expected because of pressures created by soaring deficits and a scarcity of dollars, which in turn has led to shortages of imported staples.

"Shortages are on the rise along with inflation and government spending has decelerated," said a report by consulting firm Ecoanalitica, which said "Chavez's absence has made the economy take a back seat."

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds a replica of Liberator Simon Bolivar's sword on December 10, 2012 in Caracas
This photo, released by the Venezuelan Presidency, shows Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holding a replica of Liberator Simon Bolivar's sword, during a meeting with military high command members, moments before departing for Cuba to undergo new cancer s

Senior government officials, who have been shuttling between Caracas and Havana, insist Chavez is becoming more and more engaged and will return to the Venezuelan capital "sooner rather than later," as Maduro put it.

But they don't say when he will return, or whether he will be able to govern, while the opposition has stepped up its demands that the president appear in public.

"It does not help the government in terms of public opinion to continue prolonging this circumstance," political analyst John Magdaleno told AFP.

"On the one hand, it is said that the president is in full exercise of his faculties as head of state, but on the other there have been no appearances in public or even a note on Twitter," he said.

Sunday also will mark a month since Chavez, who was re-elected in October, was supposed to have been sworn in to a new six-year term.

Too sick to return for his inauguration, Chavez has been allowed to delay his swearing in indefinitely. In the meantime, his old administration has been extended in office until he is fit to take the oath of office.

But the longer the uncertainty continues, the more it puts in question a controversial Supreme Court decision to uphold the extension with no time limits, Magadaleno said.

L-R) Venezuela's Attorney General Cilia Flores, VP Nicolas Maduro and FM Elias Jaua on February 6, 2013 in Havana
This photo, released by the Venezuelan presidential press office, show (L-R) Venezuela's Attorney General Cilia Flores, Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, posing with religious images upon arrival in Havana on February 6, 2013

Maduro, who Chavez named as his choice to succeed him if he became incapacitated, has meanwhile become the government's most visible face.

He is seconded by National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who took part in a failed coup led by Chavez in 1992.

They have coupled announcements of government decisions signed by Chavez in Havana with a virulent offensive against the opposition, calling for the arrest of two opposition lawmakers.

The lawmakers are from the Justice First party led by Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October presidential elections but went on to win reelection in December as governor of the populous state of Miranda.

"This tells you that people in the government could be preparing for an election and for this reason are using brute force against a key party like (Justice First)," said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at the Universidad Simon Bolivar.

Since his operation in Havana December 11, Chavez has not been seen in public or even in photographs, a vanishing act all the more striking because he had been an omnipresent, flamboyant figure before he fell ill in June 2011.

A Venezuelan female soldier takes part in the conmemoration of the 1992 failed coup led by Chavez, on February 4, 2013
A Venezuelan female soldier takes part in the conmemoration of the 1992 failed coup led by Chavez, who was an army lieutenant colonel, against then president Carlos Andres Perez, in Caracas, on February 4, 2013.

The disclosure that he suffered a serious lung infection after the latest round of surgery set off of wave of rumors inside and outside the country, with some claiming he was dead or in a coma.

Outside of the vague government updates on his health, little is known about his condition. There have been no independent assessments.

None of the Latin American presidents who visited Havana since his operation have said they saw him.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, as she left Havana January 12, sent an enigmatic tweet: "In minutes we depart from Havana. Hasta Siempre."

The phrase, which translates as "Until Forever," evoked the song "Hasta siempre, comandante," dedicated to Ernesto "Che" Guevara on his departure from Cuba to lead a guerrilla uprising in Bolivia where he was captured and killed in 1967.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla, told Chavez supporters at a huge rally in Caracas January 10: "There is a man who is fighting for his life, who is in all your hearts, which makes sense. But if tomorrow he is not here, unity, peace and work."

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