Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas says President Hugo Chavez is in stable condition in a hospital in Cuba, two days before a planned inauguration ceremony to kick off the entrenched populist's new term.
Villegas said Chavez was responding to "constant and rigorous" treatment he is receiving in the Cuban hospital where last month he underwent a fourth operation for cancer.
Chavez left for Cuba nearly a month ago and has not been seen or heard from publicly since.
Officials have never made clear what sort of cancer Chavez has, but Villegas indicated the Venezuelan leader's current health problems stem from postoperative respiratory complications.
National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello has called for a mass rally of support on the day Chavez should be sworn in for a new term, his third six-year stint under a new constitution that he pushed through with the help of a referendum.
Cabello said the inauguration was only a "formality" and called on people to come to the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas or come out in the streets of their home cities and towns and show support for Chavez.
His opponents point to constitutional requirements on the president's ability to serve and say new elections should be called.
Church Joins Chorus Of Complaint
The political opposition received support on January 7 from one of the strongest forces in Venezuela, the Catholic Church.
The head of the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops, Diego Padron, spoke out publicly against attempts to bend the constitution to serve the interests of keeping Chavez in power.
"It is not the purpose of this assembly to intervene publicly in the interpretation of the constitution," Padron said.
"But in this case, the well-being of the country and defense of ethics is in play. To alter the constitution to achieve political goals in morally unacceptable."
Padron also criticized the Venezuelan authorities for not giving the country's people sufficient information about Chavez's health.
"The population is confused and a big part of it is also annoyed, because, despite more than 25 announcements about the health of the president, until now we have not had one single Venezuelan medical report," Padron said.
"The government has not told the people the whole truth, which they have a right to know for certain. They have only communicated, with obvious difficulty, their political truth."
Chavez has proven popular with the majority of Venezuelans during his 12-year rule, but his prolonged absences during the second half of 2012 and doubts now being raised by officials in that predominantly Catholic country could undermine his regime's authority.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters