By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela published photographs on Friday of President Hugo Chavez chatting with Cuba's Fidel Castro and walking in a hospital as he recovers from cancer surgery on the Communist-led island.
Stung by criticism it has shrouded the 57-year-old Chavez's condition in secrecy and put out misleading information in the past, Venezuela's government insists he is recovering quickly and will be ready to contest a presidential election on October 7.
Chavez had a large cancerous tumor removed in Havana last year, and Venezuelans experienced a sense of deja-vu over the handling of his latest setback: brief messages from him on Twitter, short telephone calls to state TV, then the release of pictures of Chavez with Cuba's former leader Fidel.
In two new photographs published on Twitter on Friday by Venezuela's Information Minister Andres Izarra, Chavez was seen in discussion with his close friend and political mentor.
"They talked for almost two hours," Izarra tweeted.
In another pair of photographs, the Venezuelan leader was seen walking inside what is assumed to be Havana's closely-guarded Cimeq Hospital, wearing a blue tracksuit and smiling at the camera with nurses in the background.
"(Here is) Chavez walking in clear and rapid recovery," said Izarra, adding that the Venezuelan president also received a phone call from Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff - who told him he must follow his treatment schedule with discipline.
Izarra said the photos were taken on Friday afternoon.
Surgeons in Cuba removed a possibly malignant lesion from Chavez's pelvis five days ago. He has sounded upbeat in two phone calls to Venezuelan state TV since then, and allies have scuffed at rumors - mostly in the opposition media - that his condition may be much worse than has been revealed.
Opposition-leaning Venezuelan journalists have quoted medical sources as saying Chavez's cancer has metastasized, or spread. His allies deny that and say those reports are aimed at destabilizing South America's biggest oil exporter.
Earlier on Friday, the president made a 20-minute call to state TV in which he chatted with steel workers, outlined more government programs and said he had restarted eating solid food.
"Thank you for so much support. Here I'm beginning to take off again. I will be with you in all the months and years that I once again have left to me," he said.
There has been no word on when Chavez will return home, and should his condition be life-threatening that would have serious implications for the country, given that he has vowed to win another six-year term in October and has no clear successor.
Chavez's rival for the election is Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor who hopes to woo former Chavez voters with a promise of a Brazilian-style "modern left" government. He has repeatedly wished Chavez a speedy recovery.
On Friday, Capriles was on the second day of a nationwide "door to door" tour, ignoring the saga to kick off his election campaign. Opinion polls show Venezuelans broadly split between a third pro-Chavez, a third opposition and third undecided.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce and Philip Barbara)