CARACAS, Jan. 15 (Xinhua) -- Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday that President Hugo Chavez was making progress in his recovery from cancer surgery and ensuing respiratory problems in Cuba.
"We can say that our commander is climbing the hill, he is advancing," said Maduro, who returned Monday after a three-day trip to Havana, along with parliamentary speaker Diosdado Cabello, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores.
Maduro said a lung infection had been controlled and Chavez's condition was improving. He was conscious but still needed help breathing.
Chavez has not been seen in public since undergoing his fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana on Dec. 11, 2012, and his allies are struggling to defend the president's rule over the OPEC nation.
Chavez went to Cuba for cancer surgery weeks after he won his third six-year term in October's election, but he was too sick to return to Caracas to take the oath of office on Jan. 10.
Chavez's prolonged absence and poor health prompted the opposition to demand an interim leader be named and a new election be held within 30 days should Chavez miss the swearing-in.
However, a day ahead of the inauguration, Venezuela's Supreme Court announced a delay of the inauguration, saying Chavez's "absence from the country should not be considered a temporary absence (from power)," and the swearing-in ceremony would take place "when the motive impeding it ceases." The move has been decried by the opposition as unconstitutional
The opposition was further outraged when Maduro, standing in for Chavez, gave a brief state-of-the-nation address and named Elias Jaua as new foreign minister on Tuesday.
"We are facing an illegitimate government," said opposition stalwart Maria Corina Machado. "We demand that decisions about Venezuela be made in Venezuela."
Henrique Capriles, Venezuela's main opposition leader, said Maduro's announcement designating Jaua as foreign minister was illegal.
"The only way a minister can be named is through a decree by the president of the republic," Capriles said.
Opposition politicians also argued the annual speech should have been postponed because the president was supposed to deliver it, and about a dozen walked out in protest.
Chavez, now 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011 and has since undergone surgery four times, plus chemo and radiation treatment, in Havana.
Chavez remains tremendously popular in Venezuela due to his constant focus on improving living conditions for the poor.
According to the U.S.-based Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), poverty declined by nearly 50 percent from 2004 to the end of 2011, with extreme poverty down 70 percent. The CEPR also said college education doubled during the same time.
In a statement published on the center's website, analyst Mark Weisbrot said, "the 20 years prior to Chavez were an economic disaster, with per capita income actually falling between 1980 and 1998; so naturally most people have noticed the difference."