Venezuela's Chavez 'recovering': Fidel Castro

Ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had cancer surgery in December, is doing much better and recovering, Cuban leader Fidel Castro said in remarks published Monday.

Chavez, whose country sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves, has not been seen or heard from since his December 11 operation in a Havana hospital -- sparking much speculation about his fate.

The 58-year-old is "much better, recovering," Castro said of his friend and ally in comments carried by the official Granma newspaper.

"It has been a strong struggle but it has been improving," he said, adding: "We have to cure him. Chavez is very important for his country and for Latin America."

Castro, 86, also told reporters before voting in Cuba's parliamentary elections Sunday that he gets a daily update on Chavez's condition.

The Venezuelan leader was too sick to attend his own inauguration January 10 to a six year term, prompting the government to indefinitely delay the swearing-in under an interpretation of the constitution that was slammed by the opposition.

Officials have said Chavez, who suffered a lung infection following his surgery, was making steady progress, signing documents and even cracking jokes with aides.

Many Venezuelans, however, are dubious that the normally voluble Chavez, who often appeared on state radio and television for hours at a time, would choose to stay silent.

Castro, in his first public appearance in three months, also praised Chavez as one of the "greatest architects" of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which groups all nations from across the Americas -- except the United States and Canada.

Last week, in a move seen as a major diplomatic coup, Cuba formally assumed the presidency of the regional bloc, which was set up in December 2011 at the behest of Chavez.

Under Chavez, who regards Castro as his political mentor, Venezuela has become Havana's main trading partner and political ally.

Castro, who handed over the helm of the communist state to his brother Raul in 2006 due to health problems of his own, had not appeared in public since accompanying Elias Jaua, now Venezuela's foreign minister, to a Havana hotel on October 21.

During his appearance Sunday, he leaned on a cane and wore a plaid shirt under a dark jacket.