Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Friday night that he was traveling to Cuba to visit President Hugo Chavez, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Havana.
Maduro said during the inauguration of a state governor that he and other government officials would fly to Cuba late Friday. He did not specify how long he would be away but said Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.
Maduro'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 Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term. There have been no updates on Chavez's condition since Maduro announced Monday night that he had received a phone call from the president who was up and walking.
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 or even confirmed that he saw Chavez while he was there.
Earlier 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 demanded Friday 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 Venezuelan media.
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.
A legal fight is brewing over what should happen if Chavez, who was re-elected in October, cannot return in time for the inauguration before the National Assembly.
National Assembly Diosdado Cabello insisted Monday that Venezuela's constitution allows the president to take the oath before the Supreme Court at any time if he cannot do it before the legislature on Jan. 10.
Opposition leaders argue the constitution requires that new elections be held within 30 days if Chavez cannot take office 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 president is fit to govern.