The government warned Venezuelans on Wednesday that ailing President Hugo Chavez may not be well enough after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba to be inaugurated on Jan. 10.
Moving to prepare the public for the possibility of more bad news, Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim earlier in the day when he acknowledged that Chavez faced a "complex and hard" process after his latest surgery.
At the same time, officials strove to show a united front amid the growing worries about Chavez's health and the country's future. Key leaders of Chavez's party and military officers appearing together on television as Maduro took the lead in giving 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. Cabello, who had accompanied Chavez to Cuba for the operation, denied rumors of the president's demise.
"That man who is in Havana... is fighting a battle for his life, and he said it," Cabello said. He urged the audience to pray and said Chavez is "invincible."
Throughout the day, Venezuelan state television broadcast religious services in which Chavez's supporters prayed for his health, 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 that 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 for state office 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."
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas expressed hope about the president returning, but said if Chavez isn't back for his scheduled swearing-in for a new six-year term, "our people should be prepared to understand it."
The constitution says presidents should be sworn in before the National Assembly, and if that's not possible then before the Supreme Court.
Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor said a president cannot delegate the swearing-in to anyone else and cannot take the oath of office outside Venezuela. A president could still be sworn in even if temporarily incapacitated, but would need to be conscious and in Venezuela, Duque told The Associated Press.
If a president-elect is declared incapacitated by lawmakers and is unable to be sworn in, the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote must be held within 30 days, Duque said.
Chavez said Saturday that if such new elections were held, Maduro should be elected president in his place.
Villegas said in a message on a government website that 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."
On Wednesday night, Villegas went on television to give an update, saying Chavez was in "stable condition." Reading from a statement, he said Chavez was with his close relatives and said the government invited people to "accompany President Chavez in this new test with their prayers."
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also acknowledged the possibility of losing his close ally, while wishing him the best. "Chavez is very important for Latin America, but if he can't continue at the head of Venezuela, the processes of change have to continue," Correa said.
Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, his voice hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the pre-dawn hours with Cabello and Ramirez. The pair returned to Venezuela about 3 a.m. after accompanying Chavez to Cuba for his surgery.
"It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation," Maduro said. "The post-operative process is also going to be a complex and hard process."
Without giving details, Maduro reiterated Chavez's recent remarks that the surgery presented risks and that people should be prepared for any "difficult scenarios, which can be faced only with the unity of the people." Still, he expressed optimism Chavez would return home.
The vice president criticized the opposition, accusing it of using Chavez's illness to attack him. Many political adversaries have said the president should be more forthcoming about details of his pelvic cancer.
The dramatic events of this week, with Chavez suddenly taking a turn for the worse, had some Venezuelans wondering whether they were being told the truth because just a few months ago the president was running for his fourth presidential term and had said he was free of cancer.
Lawyer Maria Alicia Altuve, who was out in bustling crowds in a shopping district of downtown Caracas, said it seemed odd how Maduro wept at a political rally while talking about Chavez.
"He cries on television to set up a drama, so that people go vote for poor Chavez," Altuve said. "So we don't know if this illness is for that, or if it's that this man is truly sick."
Chavez announced over the weekend that he needed to have surgery again after tests showed "some malignant cells" had reappeared in the same area of his pelvic region where tumors were previously removed.
Throughout his nearly 14-year-old presidency, Chavez has been loved by some Venezuelans and reviled by others as he has nationalized companies, crusaded against U.S. influence and labeled his enemies "oligarchs" and "squalid ones."
Some Chavez supporters said they find it hard to think about losing the president and are worried about the future.
Others Venezuelans said that while they're sorry about Chavez's health and wish him the best, it isn't a particular concern for them. Many were out buying Christmas gifts and food as they prepared for the holiday season.
"The truth is that I have not paid much attention to the news. I just know the president is very sick and he went to Cuba for an operation," said Gabriela Hernandez, a nurse and opposition supporter. "I hope that he can get better. ... I don't wish for misfortune for anybody."
Omar Mendez, a shopkeeper who said he doesn't support Chavez or the opposition, was among several who worried about the possibility of political upheaval if Chavez doesn't survive.
"Many people don't dare to say it, but they want Chavez's death," Mendez said. "I would say something to those people: They should think hard about the consequences if Chavez does not survive this terrible illness because Chavez's death could bring about an unprecedented political crisis."
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.