Venezuela's Chavez in therapy, eyes return - Morales

LA PAZ/CARACAS Wed Jan 23, 2013 2:23am IST

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hold a mask depicting him while attending a rally in Caracas January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Edwin Montilva

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hold a mask depicting him while attending a rally in Caracas January 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Edwin Montilva

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LA PAZ/CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is undergoing physical therapy to hasten his return from Cuba after surgery there last month for the cancer jeopardizing his 14-year rule, Bolivian President Evo Morales said on Tuesday.

The comments by Morales, a fellow leftist and close friend of Chavez, added to positive signals from Venezuelan officials that the president was improving and may be able to return from Cuba, where he had surgery on December 11.

He has not been seen or heard from in public since then.

"I communicated with Cuba and, brothers and sisters, we have good news about our brother, President Hugo Chavez. He is already undergoing physical therapy to return to his country," Morales said in a speech to parliament in La Paz.

"Latin American leaders like Fidel (Castro) and Hugo Chavez are very much needed at international events, and I'm certain that soon we will be (together again) at presidential summits," Morales added, without giving more details.

There were rumors around New Year's Day that the socialist Chavez, 58, was on life support. They have given way in the past few days to speculation he may soon return to Venezuela.

Local media reports have said a military hospital in Caracas is being prepared to receive Chavez.

In the absence of detailed medical information, Venezuelans are debating whether Chavez may be able to recover well enough to continue governing or whether he wants to come home to smooth a handover of power or simply to say farewell.

'ENCOURAGING NEWS'

After Morales' comments, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said no return date was yet planned for Chavez.

Though still in a "difficult" and "complex" battle for his health, the latest news from Havana was promising and Chavez was in "good spirits", the minister said in comments carried live on TV after a cabinet meeting in Caracas.

"Commander Chavez is in Havana in the process of full re-establishment of his health," Villegas said. "The (latest) report was very encouraging ... There is no return date yet."

Before going to Cuba, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who rose through the ranks to become one of Chavez's most faithful allies, as his preferred successor should he be incapacitated.

Maduro would, though, have to win a new vote.

Morales and Venezuelan officials' comments suggest Chavez may have come through some of the worst effects of his operation. The government had acknowledged he suffered bleeding and a lung infection after surgery.

The disease was detected in his pelvic area in mid-2011.

Venezuela's foreign minister said on Monday that Chavez was laughing and joking, as well as giving instructions again on government matters. But speculation persists that the cancer may have metastasized and Chavez may not have long to live.

Some opponents are skeptical, asking why Chavez cannot speak to the nation if he can chat with ministers.

(Writing by Hilary Burke and Andrew Cawthorne; editing by Philip Barbara)

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