Chavez's breathing problem 'persists': minister

Venezuela's cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez is still suffering from respiratory problems, and the evolution of that condition "has not been favourable," the information minister has said.

Chavez, who returned home early Monday after a fourth cancer surgery and more than two months of convalescence in Cuba, will receive more treatment for the breathing issue, Ernesto Villegas said yesterday.

"Medical treatment for the underlying condition (cancer) continues without present significant adverse effects so far," he said in a statement read and broadcast on television and radio stations in the country.

Chavez "remains in communication with other family members and the government's political team, and is working in close collaboration with the medical team," Villegas added.

In stark contrast with Chavez's usually bombastic style and omnipresence in Venezuelan life, he announced his return on his Twitter account.

Since his surgery December 11, the only photos released of him came out almost a week ago. Chavez was seen bed-ridden but smiling, looking through a newspaper with two of his daughters at his side.

At the Caracas military hospital where Chavez is said to be continuing his convalescence, soldiers are on guard outside to keep out journalists and curious onlookers.

Local press reports quote hospital employees as saying they know nothing and have not seen the president.

Besides the president's health, public debate centers on his delayed swearing-in to a third term, which he won in October presidential elections.

Chavez missed the scheduled inauguration ceremony January 10, and it has been delayed indefinitely, angering many in the opposition.

The burst of joy many Venezuelans felt on the president's return from Cuba appears to be petering out, and the veil of secrecy surrounding him has been maintained.

The public has not seen Chavez since his surprise homecoming, nor have they heard his voice, leaving supporters rattled and allowing doubts about his condition to deepen.

Bolivian President Evo Morales came to Caracas on Tuesday to see his fellow leftist populist leader, but even he was not allowed to see him. He only got to talk to doctors and Chavez relatives.

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