CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Somber confidants of President Hugo Chavez say he is going through a difficult recovery after cancer surgery in Cuba, and one close ally is warning Venezuelans that their leader may not make it back for his swearing-in next month.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Wednesday night that Chavez was in "stable condition" and was with close relatives in Havana. Reading a statement, he said the government invites people to "accompany President Chavez in this new test with their prayers."
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 Chavez 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 Chavez's condition as "when we have a sick father, in a delicate situation after four surgeries in a year and a half."
Moving to prepare the public for the possibility of more bad news, Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim when he acknowledged that Chavez 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 Chavez's health and Venezuela's future. Key leaders of Chavez's party and military officers appeared together on television as Maduro gave updates on Chavez'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 Chavez's inner circle. "We're united in loyalty to Chavez."
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 Chavez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government.
Cabello, a former military officer who also wields power within Chavez's movement, shared the spotlight with Maduro by speaking at a Mass for Chavez's health at a military base.
Just returned from being with Chavez for the operation, Cabello called the president "invincible" but said "that man who is in Havana ... is fighting a battle for his life."
After Chavez's six-hour operation Tuesday, Venezuelan television broadcast religious services where people prayed for Chavez, 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 Chavez's condition and what might happen if he died.
At campaign rallies ahead of Sunday's gubernatorial elections, Chavez'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 Chavez's candidates could get a boost from their supporters' outpouring of sympathy for Chavez.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is running against Jaua, complained Wednesday that Chavez'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."