Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is in delicate condition after his latest surgery for cancer, the government said on Wednesday, in a somber assessment that may presage 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 that 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 overnight after accompanying Chavez in hospital.
He spoke of "difficult" times ahead.
Chavez's downturn opens gaping uncertainty over the future of his self-styled socialist revolution in a nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.
A seasoned 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 of natural resources.
At home, he has won cult-like status among the poor with his charismatic style and oil-financed largesse from health clinics to free homes. But he has alienated business with 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.
"With God's help we will overcome and sooner rather than later we will have our commander president here," he said.
PRAYERS FOR CHAVEZ
The stakes are also enormous for allies around Latin America and the Caribbean who rely on Chavez's generous oil subsidies and other aid. 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.
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.
Chavez changed the panorama before flying to Cuba by urging Venezuelans to vote for Maduro should an election be triggered by his departure from office. The president is due to start a new, six-year term on January 10 after his October re-election.
Supporters have been holding prayer vigils, while opponents also sent Chavez best wishes for a successful recovery.
"We continue praying for this post-operation phase, where he must continue overcoming difficulties. May God give him strength," priest Walter Nabea said in a Caracas square where Chavez supporters have been gathering in solidarity.
State media were showing around-the-clock homages to Chavez. "He is a second Jesus Christ," a female supporter beamed in one.
STATE ELECTIONS LOOM
The Chavez health saga has eclipsed the buildup 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.
Though he lost to Chavez in October, Capriles made a strong showing after a year of crisscrossing the nation to make himself known to Venezuelans.
Capriles, who favors 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 one of numerous Wall Street research notes on Venezuela's intriguing political scene.
Beyond the Miranda battle, plenty of other senior politicians are enmeshed in interesting duels.
On the opposition side, Zulia Governor Pablo Perez and Lara Governor Henri Falcon - both seen as possible opposition presidential candidates should Capriles' momentum falter - are fighting to retain their positions.
In the government camp, Chavez's brother Adan is seeking re-election in the family's home state of Barinas, in Venezuela's agricultural heartland, while various former ministers have been sent out into the provinces to contest governorships.
Chavez's cancer has deprived his candidates of his personal support on the campaign trail but analysts say that could be offset by a sympathy factor that will benefit them.