CARACAS – During the process of recovering from his latest cancer surgery, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is confronting "new complications" that have put his health in a "delicate" state.
After visiting the ailing leader for the first time since his operation, Chávez's Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression in a televised address from Havana on Sunday.
"Several minutes ago we were with President Chávez. We greeted each other and he himself referred to these complications," Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.
The vice president's comments suggest an increasingly difficult fight for Chávez. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term.
"The president gave us precise instructions so that, after finishing the visit, we would tell the (Venezuelan) people about his current health condition," Maduro said. "President Chávez's state of health continues to be delicate, with complications that are being attended to, in a process not without risks."
Maduro was seated alongside Chávez's eldest daughter, Rosa, and son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, as well as Attorney General Cilia Flores. He held up a copy of a newspaper confirming that his message was recorded on Sunday.
"Thanks to his physical and spiritual strength, Comandante Chávez is facing this difficult situation," Maduro said.
The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba.... only seems understandable if Chávez's health is precarious.
Maduro said he had met various times with Chávez's medical team and relatives. He said he would remain in Havana "for the coming hours" but didn't specify how long.
Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for a sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Chávez since the surgery in Cuba, where the president's mentor Fidel Castro has reportedly made regular visits to check on him.
Before flying to Cuba, Maduro said that Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.
"The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge only seems understandable if Chávez's health is precarious," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
Smilde said that Maduro probably made the trip "to be able to talk to Chávez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chávez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10."
"Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chávez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious," Smilde said.
Before his operation, Chávez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.
Chávez said at the time that his cancer had come back despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has been fighting an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June 2011.
Medical experts say that it's common for patients who have undergone major surgeries to suffer respiratory infections and that how a patient fares can vary widely from a quick recovery in a couple of days to a fight for life on a respirator.
Maduro's latest update differed markedly from last Monday, when he had said he received a phone call from the president and that Chávez was up and walking.
The vice president spoke on Sunday below a picture of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, the inspiration of Chávez's leftist Bolivarian Revolution movement.
Maduro said that Chávez had sent year-end greetings to his homeland and a "warm hug to the boys and girls of Venezuela."
The vice president expressed faith that Chávez's "immense will to live and the care of the best medical specialists will help our president successfully fight this new battle." He concluded his message saying: "Long live Chávez."
Chávez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October, three months after he had announced that his latest tests showed he was cancer-free.
Opposition politicians have criticized a lack of detailed information about Chávez's condition, and last week repeated their demands for a full medical report.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas defended the government's handling of the situation, saying during a televised panel discussion on Sunday night that Chávez "has told the truth in his worst moments" throughout his presidency.
He also referred to a new surge of rumors about Chávez's condition and called for respect for the president and his family.
Villegas said a government-organized New Year's Eve concert in a downtown Caracas plaza had been canceled, and he urged Venezuelans to pray for Chávez.
Chávez's daughter Maria, who has been with the president since his surgery, said in a message on her Twitter account: "Thank you people of Venezuela. Thank you people of the world. You and your love have always been our greatest strength! God is with us! We love you!"
Allies of the president also responded on Twitter, repeating the phrase: "Chávez lives and will triumph."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.