President Hugo Chavez said Friday he's recovering quickly from tumor surgery in Cuba, and the first photographs of the Venezuelan leader to appear since the operation show him smiling and chatting with Fidel Castro.
One of the photographs released by Cuban state media late Friday shows Chavez in a blue, white and black track suit walking in a carpeted room without any aid. He is smiling broadly.
Others show Chavez sitting across from Castro as the two men chat, apparently in a Havana hospital. The gray-bearded Castro is also wearing a track suit. Behind them is a Venezuelan flag and a painting of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Chavez, 57, flew to Cuba on Feb. 24 to have a growth removed from the same part of the pelvic region where a larger, malignant tumor was extracted last year.
Earlier in a telephone call to Venezuelan state television, Chavez said doctors have put him on a special diet, and he's taking daily walks and spending time with close relatives.
There has been no word on whether the new lesion is cancerous. During his phone call, Chavez did not provide specific details of the surgery or the tumor that was removed.
"I cannot neglect my recuperation treatment for even a minute," Chavez said. "I continue recovering, thanks to Venezuela's support, the Cuban people, the doctors here in Cuba, to the love from the people that fills me."
"I'm taking flight, raising the fatherland of the future," he added.
Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra said in a message posted on the Twitter social networking site that Chavez also met on Friday with Cuban President Raul Castro and received a telephone call from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who expressed satisfaction that Chavez is recuperating.
"Dilma was very happy as a result of the Venezuelan leader's quick recovery," Izarra wrote.
Chavez is seeking re-election Oct. 7.
His campaign rival, Henrique Capriles, has wished for the president to have a full and quick recovery, but also criticized Venezuelan authorities for releasing little specific information about the president's health.
Chavez has repeatedly vowed to recover his health and handily defeat Capriles, although some political analysts say the socialist leader's illness and medical treatment could keep him sidelined for weeks, bolstering his rival's chances in October's election.
In a Tweet sent following his contact with state TV, Chavez thanked supporters for participating in a rally led by National Assembly Diosdado Cabello and urged them to gear up for the election campaign.
"Move forward with preparation for the campaign," Chavez stated.
Cabello reassured government supporters at the rally in northeastern state of Yaracuy that Chavez would soon return.
"Chavez will continue commanding the ship of the Bolivarian Revolution," shouted Cabello from a stage overlooking the crowd, referring to the president's political movement. "We ask the Cuban people to return the 'comandante' in good health."
Some Venezuelans were skeptical of the president's affirmation that his health is rapidly improving.
Ana Maria Fernandez, a 55-year-old street vendor who sells cigarettes, condoms and chewing gum outside a bar in gritty downtown Caracas, said she believes Chavez and his aides are exaggerating because they do not want Venezuelans to perceive him as weak.
"They always distort the truth," said Fernandez, who said she opposes Chavez's socialist ideals. "He's suffering, and that's why he's not appearing on television, demonstrating that he's recovering."
Fernandez said she doubted the photographs that appeared on Friday were new, as officials had claimed.
"He's been to Cuba so many times, those images could have been taken any time," she said.
Others confided that Chavez is going to bounce back soon.
"Our president is a strong man, he's overcome so many obstacles over the years, and I believe him when he says he's overcoming this one," said Leonardo Padron, a 47-year-old taxi driver who plans to vote for Chavez's re-election to another 6-year term.
Earlier Friday, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the defense minister and close Chavez confidant who was quoted in 2010 as saying the military would not accept an opposition election victory, said Venezuela's armed forces are dedicated to upholding democracy.
"We are strongly convinced the democratic system must prevail in the country," Rangel said.
He did not elaborate, but his statements appeared to be aimed at assuaging government opponents who have voiced concerns about the military's role of safeguarding polling stations and voting materials.
"We are an institution that supports the election process," Rangel said.
During his 13 years in office, Chavez has long promoted trusted officers and has increasingly sought to put his political stamp on the military command. Chavez survived a failed 2002 coup in which dissident military officers were involved, and he has since tried to ensure tighter control.
Chavez also instituted a new official salute for military members, "Socialist fatherland or death." He later changed it during his cancer struggle to "We will live and we will win!"
The former paratroop commander's influence over the armed forces has led to concerns among government adversaries that the military is putting its weight behind the president's political movement and no longer sees itself as an apolitical institution.
"The armed forces will be key to seeing the results of the election are respected," said Moya-Ocampos, an analyst working for London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight and IHS Janes Information Group, suggesting Chavez's foes have no reason to be worried.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker