Venezuela's Vice-President and acting leader Nicolas Maduro warned the nation of a tough road ahead on Wednesday, saying President Hugo Chavez faced a difficult recovery from cancer surgery.
As of Wednesday night, Chavez was in stable condition, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a radio and TV broadcast.
But his six-hour operation on Tuesday “was complex, difficult, delicate, which tells us that the post-surgery process will also be complex and difficult,” Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, said hours earlier.
The president “was very clear” that the country must be “prepared to face a tough and difficult situation” that can be overcome only if Venezuelans remain “united,” said Maduro, who was flanked by senior government officials.
In one flash of confidence he did say: “Sooner rather than later, we will have our comandante here,” but he gave no indication of when Chavez might return to Venezuela following Tuesday's fourth round of cancer surgery.
The type, location and severity of Chavez's cancer have been kept secret over the past 18 months, fuelling rumours and uncertainty in Venezuela.
Chavez flew to Havana for surgery on Monday after revealing that his cancer had returned just two months after his triumphant re-election to a new six-year term that begins on January 10.
The 58 year-old president was first diagnosed with the disease in June 2011. After three rounds of surgery, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Chavez had assured Venezuelans earlier this year that he was cancer-free.
The operation “ended correctly and successfully,” Maduro, to whom Chavez delegated power before flying to Havana, had told Venezuelans late Tuesday.
The vice president described the procedure as a “corrective surgery of a lesion” that occurred in the pelvic region, but did not elaborate.
Without formally handing over the presidency, Chavez said he was delegating the country's “high political command” to Maduro, 50, while he was gone, and said the vice president would succeed him if he became incapacitated.
Under Venezuela's constitution, elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is incapacitated.
Chavez supporters held religious services and candlelight vigils across the country, praying for their leader to overcome the disease.
On Wednesday cabinet members, staff, honour guard and members of the Venezuelan military went to a special Catholic mass at the Miraflores government palace to pray for the president's health. The event was re-broadcast on government VTV television.
State television has also been broadcasting spots praising Chavez's accomplishments, as well as a pro-government documentary titled “From Bolivar to Chavez.”
A leader of Chavez's party, Diosdado Cabello, urged the armed forces to stay united and watch out for any attempt to destabilise the country. He said Chavez himself had warned of this before leaving for Cuba.
“Patriots, those of us who love our country, must stay together,” Cabello said.
But amid all the pro-Chavez fervour, the opposition struck a discordant note.
The state governor whom Chavez defeated in the October presidential election, Henrique Capriles, accused the government of using the president's illness for political purposes. Its message is, he said, vote for the ruling party in regional elections Sunday as a gift to the ailing president.
Indeed, Maduro on Tuesday likened a vote for pro-Chavez candidates to “a hug, a kiss, a vote of love for Chavez.”
Capriles said Wednesday, “What does what is happening to the president have to do with the election?” He said appeals like that of Maduro come from “people who apparently have nothing to offer the country.” Capriles is running for re-election in the populous northern state of Miranda.
Chavez supporters are expected to win in most of Venezuela's 23
states, but all eyes will be on the governors race for Miranda, where Caracas is located.
In the downtown plaza of La Candelaria, a group of Chavez supporters wrote messages of support for their leader on an enormous white sheet.
Storekeeper Heli Gonzalez, himself a cancer survivor, said he was closely following news of Chavez's health.
“Chavez is a human being who has shown concern for the people,” Gonzalez told AFP. “I'm glad to hear that the operation was successful.”
Gonzalez, however, thought it was unlikely Chavez would soon be back in Venezuela. “We're talking about cancer, healing it is a terrible process,” he said.
With Cuba's backing, Chavez has taken the lead in forming a bloc of leftist Latin American governments that oppose US policies in the region, and has cultivated friendly relations with Washington adversaries like Iran.
Members of the group include Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua - all of which receive substantial aid from oil-rich Venezuela. - Sapa-AFP