CARACAS Anxious Venezuelans debated on Saturday how long President Hugo Chavez could take to recover after a cancer operation, despite government assurances the socialist leader will be fit to run for re-election next year.
The opposition has slammed his administration for withholding basic information about the president's condition while insisting the 56-year-old remains fully in charge. Chavez planned to meet several of his ministers in Cuba on Saturday.
His illness has convulsed South America's biggest oil exporter, underlining the lack of an obvious successor while stoking fears of a power vacuum and political infighting.
Since Chavez appeared on national television late on Thursday to reveal that he had undergone surgery in Havana to remove a cancerous tumor, many have questioned whether he will be able to run the nation of 29 million people.
A phone call by Chavez to Cuban state TV on Friday did little to quell speculation that his condition was more serious than he acknowledged and the topic remained hotly debated from Venezuela's jungle hinterlands to its Caribbean beaches.
"Nobody expected this illness ... we are very optimistic we are going to come out of this," Chavez said in the call.
He added he was sure he would recover and that the experience would strengthen him.
Chavez was keen to demonstrate he was still running Venezuela during his recuperation, discussing energy and infrastructure projects and summoning government leaders, including Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, to talks in Havana.
Chavez did not say when he would return. One source close to the Venezuelan medical team following his recovery in Cuba said the diagnosis had revealed a cancer that required aggressive treatment that could take several months.
A wing of the Military Hospital in Caracas was being prepared to receive him when he returns, the source said.
Chavez vanished from public view after an initial operation to remove a pelvic abscess on June 10, followed by the more serious cancer tumor extraction. The government announced the abscess surgery, but there was no official update on his condition until Chavez's television appearance.
"FULLY IN CHARGE"
Chavez's army chief and vice president have worked hard to assure anxious Venezuelans that the president remains in charge of the politically volatile OPEC member.
But their inability to specify a date for his return, and the absence of details about the seriousness or type of cancer he is suffering, is feeding rumors about Chavez's long-term health prospects.
Although he talked on Thursday of emerging from an "abyss," questions remained about whether the man who has dominated Venezuelan politics since 1999 and projected his leftist views around the world will be fit to fight the 2012 election.
Vice President Elias Jaua attempted to quell the doubts.
"Chavez will be out for the time that is needed for him to recover," Jaua told the Telesur TV network. "The president is at the head of the country and will continue to be at the head of the country."
"We have absolute faith and confidence in God ... that Hugo Chavez will be the candidate of the Bolivarian Revolution, of the people and patriots of Venezuela, and that he will carry on being president beyond 2012."
Other world leaders have suffered cancer but remained in office, including Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, France's Francois Mitterrand, the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Chavez supporters were already planning a march and other celebrations at the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence on Tuesday. These were expected to turn into shows of support for the convalescing president.
A regional economic summit scheduled to coincide with the July 5 anniversary has been postponed.
Despite Chavez's contentious image as a standard bearer of leftist anti-U.S. policies in Latin America and farther afield, wishes for his speedy recovery have flooded in.
"Courage is not lacking in you, President Chavez, and rest assured that you are not without the solidarity of all your friends," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said in a note.
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Reese Ewing in Sao Paulo, Editing by Doina Chaicu)