Hugo Chavez is conscious and fully aware of how "complex" his condition remains three weeks after difficult cancer surgery in Havana, the Venezuelan president's handpicked successor said Tuesday.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who accused the Venezuelan right of spreading what he described as sick lies and rumors about Chavez's health, said that he had spoken to the ailing leader twice over the past three days.
"He is absolutely aware of how complex the post-operative condition is," Maduro said in an interview from Havana with Telesur, a cable news channel funded by Venezuela and other Latin American states.
Maduro, who said he would be returning to Caracas Wednesday, provided no specifics about Chavez's condition but defended the government's efforts to keep the public abreast of the president's health.
He said Chavez demanded that "we should keep the people informed, always with the truth no matter how hard it might be in a given circumstance."
"We are confronting a situation in which the president is being attended to, is undergoing his treatment, in a complex situation and the whole time we are awaiting a positive outcome," Maduro added.
"At times there have been slight improvements, at times there have been stationary situations."
But he expressed confidence that "sooner rather than later" Chavez would surmount the crisis, adding that Chavez had squeezed his hand "with gigantic force" while they talked.
Maduro's appeals for public confidence in the government's information came amid a cascade of rumors on social networks like Twitter, including some that claimed Chavez was on life support or was dead.
"What is behind the ill-intentioned rumors? It is the evil and hatred of the enemies of Venezuela," he said. "They are people who anybody could describe as mentally ill, sick with hatred, sick with evil."
Official information about Chavez's medical condition has been sketchy since Cuban doctors first detected a cancer in his pelvic region in June 2011. He has undergone four rounds of surgery, and multiple courses of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
But the type of cancer he suffers from has not been disclosed, nor has the prognosis.
Meanwhile, political uncertainties have mounted even as Chavez won re-election in October to another six-year term in office.
Chavez is supposed to be sworn in on January 10, but that seemed in jeopardy Tuesday, stoking the prospect of major upheaval in a nation that has the world's largest proven oil reserves.
The constitution demands that new elections be called within 30 days if Chavez, who has dominated Venezuelan political life since taking power in 1999, dies or is declared incapacitated before his inauguration.
But the key question is whether Chavismo, Chavez's left-wing movement marked by patronage and generous government handouts to the poor, can survive without him.
If new elections are held, opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who gave the comandante a good run for his money in the October election, might prevail and seek to begin a new era.
For now, both the government and the opposition are leaving open the possibility of postponing the inauguration, depending on how Chavez's health evolves.
Less than two years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the country without the larger-than-life Chavez at the helm.
His outsized personality and bombastic style of governing did not permit the ascension of a heir apparent within his United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Before leaving for Cuba last month, Chavez anointed Maduro - a burly and mustachioed former bus driver and union leader - as his successor. For many, that was a signal that the process of transition had begun.
Venezuelans entered 2013 pondering what political life without Chavez might be like.
New Year's Eve revelry was tempered, and official celebrations - two open air concerts - were canceled out of respect for the ex-paratrooper who has irked the United States for years by aligning his nation with countries that Washington has hostile relations with, including Iran, Cuba and Syria.
With Chavez's fate in the balance, many Venezuelans stayed close to home on the New Year holiday, leaving the normally traffic-choked streets of the capital virtually empty.
Elisabeth Torres, who runs a food stand in 23 de Enero, a public housing complex that has long been a bastion of the left, said her family went to bed early on New Year's Eve to pray for Chavez's health.
"We miss him, we love him," she said.