Venezuela's Chavez overcomes infection, still having treatment

SANTIAGO/CARACAS Sun Jan 27, 2013 8:12am IST

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez attend a rally to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the last Venezuelan dictatorship collapse, in Caracas January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez attend a rally to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the last Venezuelan dictatorship collapse, in Caracas January 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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SANTIAGO/CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has overcome a respiratory infection, but is still being treated for breathing problems after cancer surgery in Cuba last month, a government minister said on Saturday.

Official statements have sounded upbeat about the socialist president's condition in recent weeks, following rumors he was gravely ill in a hospital in Havana and might be unable to keep governing after being re-elected in October to a third term.

"(Chavez) has overcome the respiratory infection, although he still has a certain degree of respiratory insufficiency," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas told reporters in Chile, where Latin American and European leaders are meeting.

"Vice President (Nicolas) Maduro has estimated that Chavez could come back in weeks, but we haven't wanted to put a time frame on the president's recovery," Villegas added.

Earlier on Saturday, Maduro said Chavez, 58, was in his "best moment" since his operation 45 days ago.

"What we can share with you is that the commander is in his best moment that we have seen in all of these days of struggle," Maduro said in televised comments before dawn on Saturday, after returning from Cuba to meet with the president.

Chavez has not been seen in public since undergoing his fourth and most complex surgery to treat an illness that might jeopardize the future of his self-styled revolution.

He has never said exactly what type of cancer he has, only that the initial tumor found in mid-2011 was in his pelvic area and was the size of a baseball.

In contrast to Chavez's previous visits to Havana for treatment, officials have not published any evidence of his condition. In 2011, with great fanfare, they broadcast videos of him reading a newspaper, walking in a garden and chatting with his daughter.

In the absence of such proof this time, many Venezuelans are questioning the terse official bulletins that provide few details about his condition or treatment.

ECONOMIC POLICY

Maduro said earlier on Saturday that Chavez had ordered a series of economic decisions that would help boost Venezuelan exports, comments that came amid speculation the government was preparing a devaluation of the bolivar currency.

"He gave a series of orders that the economic team will share in the coming hours with the people of Venezuela, which are focused on building Venezuela's export capacity," he said.

He did not elaborate.

A Finance Ministry source who asked not to be identified said on Saturday the ministry was not planning on making any announcements right now.

Devaluation would make exports more competitive by lowering local production costs and spur domestic industries by making imports less competitive with locally produced goods.

It would also improve state finances by providing more bolivars per dollar of oil exports, following heavy spending in 2012 on homes for the poor and pensions for the elderly that helped Chavez win re-election.

But it would also push up consumer prices in a country that already has one of the highest inflation rates in the region.

A lack of dollars in recent weeks has left many businesses struggling to import the products they need. Some goods such as wheat flour and sugar have disappeared from supermarket shelves, partly because of import bottlenecks.

Business leaders insist a devaluation would help address the problem.

(Additional reporting by Antonio De La Jara and Alexandra Ulmer in Santiago, and Eyanir Chinea in Caracas; Editing by Helen Popper and Peter Cooney)

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