Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro arrived in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday on a sudden and unexpected trip to visit Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as he recovers from cancer surgery.
The previous night in Caracas, Venezuela, Maduro did not specify how long he would be away, but said Venezuelan Minister of Energy Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs during his absence.
Maduro’s announcement offered no information on the purpose of his visit beyond seeing Chavez.
The vice president’s trip comes amid growing uncertainty about Chavez’s health.
The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery on Dec. 11 and government officials have said he might not return in time for his Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term.
There have been no updates on Chavez’s condition since Maduro announced on Monday night last week that he had received a phone call from the president, who was up and walking.
The Venezuelan opposition criticized Maduro for what they said was a lack of transparency surrounding Chavez’s health.
“What I still don’t understand is who is president,” Venezuelan lawmaker Alfonso Marquina said. “Who is governing the country now? As for the purpose of this sudden and improvised trip, only the national government knows.”
Maduro is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to visit Chavez since the surgery. Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Cuba last weekend in a quick trip that only added to the uncertainty surrounding Chavez’s condition. Morales has not commented publicly on his visit.
Before leaving for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged the precariousness of his situation and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election was necessary. Although Chavez has delegated some administrative powers to Maduro, he did not leave the vice president officially in charge of the presidency.
Venezuela’s Democratic Unity bloc of opposition parties on Saturday said it was time for the government to declare the president temporarily absent from power.
“They are trying to hide what every day is a fact: The government does not want to recognize that there is a temporary absence of the president from his duties,” the bloc said in a statement.
On Friday, Maduro read a New Year message from Chavez to Venezuelan troops, though it was unclear when the president composed it.
“I have had to battle again for my health,” Chavez said in the message.
He expressed “complete faith in the commitment and loyalty that the revolutionary armed forces are showing me in this very complicated and difficult moment.”
A group of opposition candidates on Friday demanded that Maduro provide an official medical report on Chavez’s health. Lawmaker Dinorah Figuera said the country needs “a medical report from those who are responsible for the diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of the president.”
“The Venezuelan people deserve official and institutional information,” Figuera told local media.
A legal fight is brewing over what should happen if Chavez, who was re-elected in October, cannot return in time for his inauguration before the Venezuelan National Assembly.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello on Monday insisted that Venezuela’s constitution allows the president to take the oath before the coutnry’s Supreme Court at any time if he cannot do it before the legislature on Jan. 10.
Yet, opposition leaders say the constitution requires that new elections be held within 30 days if Chavez cannot assume office on Jan. 10.
They have criticized the confusion over the inauguration as the latest example of the Chavez government’s disdain for democratic rule of law and have demanded clarity on whether the Venezuelan leader is fit to govern.