Venezuela plunged deeper into an uncertain future on Tuesday as cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez took a turn for the worse, hit by a severe infection and breathing problems.
The once omnipresent face of the Latin American left, now breathing with the aid of a tracheal tube, has neither emerged nor spoken in public in almost three months, leaving the oil-rich nation and the wider region on tenterhooks.
At the president's military hospital in Caracas, dozens of people prayed and cried in a new chapel named "hope" that was inaugurated for Chavez last Friday. "He has a new and severe infection," Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a statement read from the hospital late Monday, adding that there was a "worsening of respiratory function..
He did not specify the type of infection but the government had said earlier this month that Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection that he had contracted following surgery in Cuba.
Carlos Dzik, an oncologist at the Syrian Lebanese Hospital in Sao Paulo who is not involved in Chavez's treatment, told AFP that chemotherapy affects the immune system, causing infections "whose location is often not found in these cases."
The somber government statement came two weeks after Chavez, 58, checked into the military hospital on February 18 following two months of treatment in Cuba.
Saying Chavez continues to "cling to Christ and life," Villegas reiterated that he was undergoing "intensive chemotherapy, as well as complementary treatments" and that his "condition continues to be very delicate."
But the government did not give a prognosis for the health of the president who has been in power for 14 years. Under the constitution, an election must be called within 30 days if the president is incapacitated.
Chavez's prolonged absence -- which prevented him from being sworn in to a new six-year term earlier this year -- has angered the opposition, which accuses the government of lying about his condition.
"We are still waiting for a concrete answer, for them to tell us if the president can return to power or not," said Gerardo Leaiza, 22, who was among 50 university students who have spent a week chained to each other in the middle of a Caracas streets, demanding that the government "tell the truth" about Chavez.
If Chavez is unable to govern, Leaiza said, "elections should be called."
Giovanni Cardinale, 55, who works in a small shoe repair shop, said the latest medical bulletin "does not look good."
"It will be difficult for him to heal. But the people will hold on as long as necessary, because even though he is in this condition, he continues to be the leader and the majority of Venezuelans are with him," Cardinale said.
Chavez's chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, and other senior officials have lashed out at the opposition and rumors that Chavez may be dead or dying, saying it is all part of a campaign to destabilize the nation.
Officials have released only a set of photos showing him in his Havana hospital bed, smiling with two daughters, on February 15, three days before his homecoming. The scarcity of images has fueled rumors about his health.
Villegas called on Venezuelans to be on guard in the face of a "psychological war deployed by foreign laboratories with spokespeople in the corrupt Venezuelan right who seek to generate violent scenarios as a pretext for a foreign intervention."
The government, he added, "rejects the hypocritical attitude of Hugo Chavez's historical enemies, who have always shown him hate, insults and contempt, and who are now using his health situation as an excuse to destabilize Venezuela."
A few hours before the statement, state-run television showed the presidential guard inaugurating a new tank squadron, with General Jose Ornellas, the head of the armed forces, declaring: "With Chavez everything, without Chavez nothing."
Officials and relatives, meanwhile, sent messages of support on Twitter.
One of Chavez's daughters, Maria Gabriela, thanked supporters on Twitter, writing: "All my love to you! We continue to cling to God! Thanks for the messages of solidarity!"
The government has sent mixed messages about Chavez's condition, saying last week that he was still suffering from respiratory problems before declaring the next day that he had held a five-hour meeting with aides.
The opposition doubts the meeting ever took place.
The government has never disclosed the exact nature, location or severity of the cancer, saying only that it was in the pelvic region.
Maduro revealed for the first time on Friday that Chavez began receiving a tough new round of chemotherapy in Cuba after a respiratory infection had improved in January, and that the ailing leader had decided to continue the treatment in Caracas.
He added that Chavez was "in good spirits" while fighting for his life, and that he was issuing instructions about political and economic policies in writing.
Chavez was re-elected to a six-year term in October but was unable to attend his January 10 inauguration. The Supreme Court approved the swearing-in ceremony's indefinite delay.
Before Chavez left for Cuba in December, he designated Maduro as his political heir and urged Venezuelans to vote for him if he is unable to resume his duties.
"Comandante Chavez continues to cling to Christ and life, conscious of the difficulties that he is facing and strictly following the program designed by the medical team," Villegas said, ending the statement by saying: "Long live Chavez!"