Caracas, Venezuela -
A new and severe respiratory infection has cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez in a “very delicate” state, and his breathing has deteriorated, Venezuela's government announced late on Monday.
Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas read a brief statement on national television saying Chavez's “worsening respiratory function” was tied to a weakening of his immune system.
Serious but not sombre, Villegas said the charismatic socialist leader had “a new and severe infection.” The state news agency identified it as a respiratory infection.
Villegas said Chavez, 58, had been undergoing “chemotherapy of strong impact, among other treatments.”
He said Chavez's condition continues to be very delicate and that the president was “standing by Christ and life conscious of the difficulties he faces.”
Villegas also took the opportunity to lash out at “the corrupt Venezuelan right” for what he called a psychological war seeking “scenarios of violence as a pretext for foreign intervention.”
He called on Chavez's supporters, who include thousands of well-armed militiamen, to be “on a war footing.”
Upon Chavez's death, the opposition would contest the government's candidate in a snap election that it argues should have been called after Chavez was unable to be sworn in on January 10 as the constitution stipulates.
Indeed, the campaigning has already begun, although undeclared, with Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez has said should succeed him, frequently commandeering all broadcast channels Chavez-style to tout the “revolution” and vilify the opposition.
Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop officer who rose to fame with a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his force of personality.
Chavez was last re-elected on October 7, and his challenger, youthful Miranda state Gov Henrique Capriles, is expected to again be the opposition's candidate.
On state TV after Villegas' announcement, late-night opinion show host Mario Silva slung the latest volley of mud at Capriles, claiming his family had purchased a multi-million-dollar New York City apartment with stolen money.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges condemned Villegas' political use of Monday night's health bulletin.
“I lament such a poverty of humanity,” he tweeted.
Pro-Chavez militant Enrique Barroso sounded grave when reached by telephone for his reaction.
“This is not easy for him nor for us,” he said. “We call on the people to pray and hold vigil for the health of the president.”
One of Chavez's three daughters, Maria Gabriela, expressed thanks to well-wishers via her Twitter account. “We will prevail!” she wrote, echoing a favourite phrase of her father. “With God always.”
There has been speculation that Chavez's cancer has spread to his lungs and can't be halted.
An oncologist not involved in Chavez's treatment, which has been conducted in tightly enforced secrecy, told The Associated Press that he viewed Villegas' statement as recognition that Chavez's condition is “truly precarious.”
He called into question the veracity of Villegas' statement that Chavez had been undergoing chemotherapy, saying patients in such a delicate state simply are not put on chemotherapy.
Maduro said last week in the first such announcement that the president had begun receiving chemotherapy around the end of January.
Doctors have said that such therapy was not necessarily to try to beat Chavez's cancer into remission but could have been palliative, to extend Chavez's life and ease his suffering.
The 58-year-old Chavez was flown home to Venezuela on February 18, a little more than two months after undergoing his fourth surgery in Cuba for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic region.
He suffered a severe respiratory infection in Cuba in the last days of 2012 that nearly killed him, Maduro said last week.
A tracheal tube was inserted then and government officials have said his breathing remained laboured.
They have sent mixed signals throughout Chavez's post-operative days, and in an early February opinion survey nearly three in five Venezuelans said they believed the president whose largesse has endeared him to the poor would recover.
The cancer was diagnosed in June 2011, and Chavez has undergone a series of radiation treatments and chemotherapy after operations.
He has not been seen nor heard of - other than proof-of-life photos released on February 15 - since he flew to Cuba for his last surgery, which was performed on December 11. - Sapa-AP