CARACAS, Venezuela – A severe new respiratory infection has hit cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez and his condition is "very delicate," Venezuela's government says.
A brief statement read on national television by Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas late Monday carried the sobering news about the charismatic 58-year-old socialist leader's deteriorating health.
Villegas said Chavez is suffering from "a new, severe infection." The state news agency identified it as respiratory.
Chavez has been undergoing "chemotherapy of strong impact," Villegas added without providing further details.
Chavez has neither been seen nor heard from, except for photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.
The government says he returned home on Feb. 18 and has been confined to Caracas' military hospital since.
Villegas said Chavez was "standing by Christ and life, conscious of the difficulties he faces."
He also took the opportunity to lash out at "the corrupt Venezuelan right" for what he called a psychological war seeking "scenarios of violence as a pretext for foreign intervention."
The communications minister called on Chavez's supporters, who include thousands of well-armed militiamen, to be "on a war footing."
Upon Chavez's death, the opposition would contest the government's candidate in a snap election that it argues should have been called after Chavez was unable to be sworn in on Jan. 10 as the constitution stipulates.
Indeed, the campaigning has already begun, although undeclared. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez has said should succeed him, has frequently commandeered all broadcast channels, Chavez-style, to tout the "revolution" and vilify the opposition.
Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop commander who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his force of personality.
Chavez was last re-elected on Oct. 7, and his challenger, youthful Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, is expected to again be the opposition's candidate.
One of Chavez's three daughters, Maria Gabriela, expressed thanks to well-wishers via her Twitter account. "We will prevail!" she wrote, echoing a favorite phrase of her father. "With God always."
Maduro said last week that the president had begun receiving chemotherapy around the end of January.
Doctors have said that such therapy was not necessarily to try to beat Chavez's cancer into remission, but could have been palliative, to extend Chavez's life and ease his suffering.
Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the Colombian League Against Cancer in Bogota, Colombia, said "it's difficult to predict" when Chavez might die, but he believes "it's a matter of days."
Castro said that Chavez could face further respiratory complications if he receives more intense chemotherapy treatment.
If the president's medical team "gives him strong chemotherapy again, then it would not be surprising if some infections reappear," Castro said in a telephone interview.
While in Cuba, Chavez suffered a severe respiratory infection in late December that nearly killed him, Maduro said last week. A tracheal tube was inserted then and government officials have said his breathing remained labored.
Libardo Rodriguez, a 60-year-old man who sells orange juice on the street in Caracas, said he was very worried after Monday evening's announcement regarding Chavez's condition. The government, he added, should provide more information.
"We are worried because he does not appear. The truth is that I don't know what's happening," said Rodriguez, a Chavez supporter.
Rodriguez complained about what he described as the government's vague updates regarding Chavez's health.
"There are many rumors and nobody knows who to believe," he said. "We hope he's alive."
In Cuba, Chavez has undergone a series of radiation treatments and chemotherapy after his operations. But the entire treatment regimen was kept far from public scrutiny.