CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in delicate condition after his latest surgery for cancer, the government said on Wednesday in a sombre assessment that may indicate an end to his 14-year leadership of the South American OPEC nation.
Looking grave-faced in an address to the nation the day after Chavez's six-hour operation in Cuba, Vice President Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuelans to unite in prayer for the 58-year-old president and keep faith he would return soon.
"Yesterday's operation was complex, difficult and delicate, so the post-operation process will also be a complex and tough process," Maduro said, flanked by ministers who flew in to Caracas overnight after accompanying Chavez in Cuba.
Maduro spoke of "difficult" times ahead.
Chavez's downturn opens gaping uncertainty about the future of his self-styled socialist revolution in a nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.
A frequent critic of the United States, Chavez has spearheaded a resurgence of the left in Latin America, galvanized a global "anti-imperialist" alliance from Iran to Belarus and led a decade-long push by developing nations for greater control over natural resources.
A close ally, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, sought to put a more positive spin on the news, telling reporters in Quito that Chavez was doing all right.
"He is fine, even though the surgery was complex," Correa said, but he added that the future was not certain.
"If the gravity of his illness meant he could not continue to lead Venezuela, the revolutions must continue, in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Argentina, in Bolivia."
At home, Chavez has won cult-like status among the poor with his charisma and oil-financed largesse from health clinics to free homes. But he has alienated business with frequent nationalizations and angered many Venezuelans by putting ideological crusades over basic services.
Maduro, whom Chavez has named as a preferred successor should he be incapacitated, offered no medical details but urged Venezuelans to stay hopeful.
Supporters have been holding prayer vigils, while opponents also sent Chavez best wishes for a successful recovery. Senior government ministers and military commanders attended a Mass to pray for Chavez's health, which was broadcast live on state TV.
"He is fighting for life," the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, told the congregation.
In a plaza near the centre of Caracas, neighbours came to write well wishes for Chavez on a white cloth. But government officials appeared to be cautiously preparing the president's supporters for the worst.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a statement that Venezuelans should view Chavez's situation like that of an ill relative and have faith that he will return.
"If he doesn't, our people should be ready to understand. It would be irresponsible to hide the delicate nature of the moment we are currently living," he wrote.
One government source said Chavez was in critical condition early on Wednesday, but since then his vital signs had improved.
State media showed hours of homages to the president, and of rank-and-file supporters around the country gushing with admiration. "He is a second Jesus Christ," one woman beamed.
The stakes also are enormous for allies around Latin America and the Caribbean who rely on generous oil subsidies and other aid from Chavez. President Raul Castro's communist government in Cuba is particularly vulnerable because of its dependence on more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela.
Wall Street investors are also watching closely in the hope that Chavez's intransigent socialism will give way to a more market-friendly administration.
Venezuela's global bonds, which usually rise on bad news about Chavez's health, saw a muted reaction on Wednesday.
The operation was Chavez's fourth in Havana since mid-2011 for a recurring cancer in the pelvic region.
Opposition leaders have criticized the government for lack of transparency, pointing out that other Latin American leaders provided detailed reports of both diagnoses and treatments.
The president is due to start a new, six-year term on January 10 after his October re-election.
REGIONAL ELECTIONS LOOM
The Chavez health saga has eclipsed the build-up to regional elections on Sunday that will be an important test of political forces in Venezuela at such a pivotal moment.
Of most interest in the 23 state elections is opposition leader Henrique Capriles' bid to retain the Miranda governorship against a challenge from former Vice President Elias Jaua.
Polls have been mixed with one showing Capriles way ahead and another giving Jaua a 5 percentage point lead.
Capriles must win if he is to retain credibility and be the opposition's presidential candidate-in-waiting should Chavez's cancer force a new election. Even though it may be premature, many Venezuelans already are asking themselves what a Capriles versus Maduro presidential election would be like.
Capriles, who favours a Brazilian-style government promoting open markets with firm welfare safeguards, won 44 percent in the election, a record 6.5 million votes for the opposition.
Although past polls have shown Capriles more popular than all of Chavez's allies, that would not necessarily be the case against a Maduro candidacy imbued with Chavez's personal blessing and with the power of the Socialist Party behind him.
"Capriles is probably the only potential opposition candidate with sufficient national presence, name recognition and organization to defeat a sympathy-buoyed Nicolas Maduro in a short campaign," Credit Suisse said in a research note.
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Eyanir Chinea, Mario Naranjo, Efrain Otero and Daniel Wallis in Caracas, and Eduardo Garcia in Quito; Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)