CARACAS, Venezuela – The overtly enthusiastic and loyal confidants of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have perhaps never been more guarded or grim about their leader's health.
Chávez is in "stable condition" in Cuba following his fourth cancer surgery in a year and a half and may not make it back for his swearing-in next month, a government official warned Wednesday night.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said that Chávez was with close relatives in Havana. Reading a statement, he said the government invites people to "accompany President Chávez in this new test with their prayers."
Somber confidants of Chávez say he is going through a difficult recovery after cancer surgery.
He cries on television to set up a drama, so that people go vote for poor Chávez. So we don't know if this illness is for that, or if it's that this man is truly sick.
Villegas expressed hope about the president returning home for his Jan. 10 swearing-in for a new six-year term, but said in a written message on a government website that if Chávez doesn't make it, "our people should be prepared to understand it."
Villegas said it would be irresponsible to hide news about the "delicateness of the current moment and the days to come." He asked Venezuelans to see Chávez's condition as "when we have a sick father, in a delicate situation."
Moving to prepare the public for the possibility of more bad news, Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim when he acknowledged that Chávez faced a "complex and hard" process after his latest surgery.
At the same time, officials sought to show a united front amid the growing worries about Chávez's health and Venezuela's future. Key leaders of Chávez's party and military officers appeared together on television as Maduro gave updates on Chávez's condition.
"We're more united than ever," said Maduro, who was flanked by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, both key members of Chávez's inner circle. "We're united in loyalty to Chávez."
Analysts say Maduro could eventually face challenges in trying to hold together the president's diverse "Chavismo" movement, which includes groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions.
Tapped by the 58-year-old president over the weekend as his chosen political heir, Maduro is considered to be a member of radical left wing of Chávez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government.
Cabello, a former military officer who also wields power within Chávez's movement, shared the spotlight with Maduro by speaking at a Mass for Chávez's health at a military base.
Just returned from being with Chávez for the operation, Cabello called the president "invincible" but said "that man who is in Havana ... is fighting a battle for his life."
After Chávez's six-hour operation Tuesday, Venezuelan television broadcast religious services where people prayed for Chávez, interspersed with campaign rallies for upcoming gubernatorial elections.
On the streets of Caracas, people on both sides of the country's deep political divide voiced concerns about Chávez's condition and what might happen if he died.
At campaign rallies ahead of Sunday's gubernatorial elections, Chávez's candidates urged Venezuelans to vote for pro-government candidates while they also called for the president to get well.
"Onward, Commander!" gubernatorial candidate Elias Jaua shouted to a crowd of supporters at a rally Wednesday. Many observers said it was likely Chávez's candidates could get a boost from their supporters' outpouring of sympathy for Chávez.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in the October presidential election and is running against Jaua, complained Wednesday that Chávez's allies are taking advantage of the president's health problems to try to rally support. He took issue with Jaua's statement to supporters that "we have to vote so that the president recovers."
Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, his voice hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the pre-dawn hours with Cabello and Ramirez. The pair returned to Venezuela about 3 a.m. after accompanying Chávez to Cuba for his surgery.
"It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation," Maduro said. "The post-operative process is also going to be a complex and hard process."
Without giving details, Maduro reiterated Chávez's recent remarks that the surgery presented risks and that people should be prepared for any "difficult scenarios."
The constitution says presidents should be sworn in before the National Assembly, and if that's not possible then before the Supreme Court.
Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor said a president cannot delegate the swearing-in to anyone else and cannot take the oath of office outside Venezuela. A president could still be sworn in even if temporarily incapacitated, but would need to be conscious and in Venezuela, Duque told The Associated Press.
If a president-elect is declared incapacitated by lawmakers and is unable to be sworn in, the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote must be held within 30 days, Duque said.
Chávez said Saturday that if an election had to be held, Maduro should be elected president.
The dramatic events of this week, with Chávez suddenly taking a turn for the worse, had some Venezuelans wondering whether they were being told the truth because just a few months ago the president was running for his fourth presidential term and had said he was free of cancer.
Lawyer Maria Alicia Altuve, who was out in bustling crowds in a shopping district of downtown Caracas, said it seemed odd how Maduro wept at a political rally while talking about Chávez.
"He cries on television to set up a drama, so that people go vote for poor Chávez," Altuve said. "So we don't know if this illness is for that, or if it's that this man is truly sick."
Some Chávez supporters said they found it hard to think about losing the president and worried about the future. His admirers held prayer vigils in Caracas and other cities this week, holding pictures and singing hymns.
Chávez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011. He has also undergone months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Throughout his treatments, Chávez has kept secret some details of his illness, including the exact location and type of the tumors.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa wished his close ally the best, while also acknowledging the possibility that cancer might end his presidency. "Chávez is very important for Latin America, but if he can't continue at the head of Venezuela, the processes of change have to continue," Correa said at a news conference in Quito.
Reporting by the Associated Press.
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