CARACAS – Backers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were in no mood to celebrate New Year’s Eve Monday as the cancer-stricken leftist leader took a turn for the worse, fueling doubts about his political future.
The streets of Caracas were quiet as the government called off festivities after announcing that Chavez suffered “new complications” from a respiratory infection following his fourth cancer-related surgery on December 11 in Cuba.
His vice president and political heir, Nicolas Maduro, broke the news from Havana on Sunday night, saying the condition of the 58-year-old leader was delicate and that he faced an uphill battle.
For many Venezuelans, the holiday season was not the same without their ubiquitous “Comandante,” the face of the Latin American left and fierce critic of the United States who has led the oil-rich nation for 14 years.
“We have never had a Christmas like this. Only God knows what will happen with him and with us,” said 70-year-old retiree Miguel Enrique as he prepared to attend Mass.
Crews took down the stage of a downtown concert site while Information Minister Ernesto Villegas urged families “to ring in the New Year at home, praying and expressing hope for the health” of Chavez.
Several ministers attended a special mass in support of Chavez at the Miraflores presidential palace at midday.
At a meeting point for Chavez followers in the Plaza Bolivar, “Chavistas” teared up as they contemplated the health of their leader.
“We are all praying for the health of our commander,” said Miriam, one of the people gathered at the square. “There can’t be any party here.”
Mireya de la Fe, a teacher, was taken aback by the president’s new health setback.
“I am shaken and very sad. I could not imagine the seriousness (of the health situation) of Chavez,” she said.
Chavez had declared himself cancer free in July, more than a year after being diagnosed with the disease in the pelvic region. The exact nature of the cancer has never been made public.
He was re-elected in October but announced a relapse earlier this month and rushed to Cuba for another operation.
On Monday on Twitter, hashtags translating into expressions such as “Chavez will live and conquer” and “I love Chavez” were numerous, while others speculated about his health.
One of the people discussing Chavez’s health was Jose Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor who lives in the United States and has claimed in the past to have reliable sources informing him about the president.
“The respiratory failure continues without any improvement and the kidney function continues to deteriorate,” he wrote on Twitter.
The government has denied such rumors.
Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in on January 10 but the government has indicated that the ceremony could be postponed if the president is not fit by then.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October 7 election, said last week that the swearing-in could be postponed.
But Veppex, a Miami-based association of 25,000 Venezuelans living outside their country as refugees or political exiles, insisted the constitution must be respected verbatim and new elections held if Chavez is indisposed.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, a presidential election must be held within 30 days if the head of state is incapacitated or dies before his inauguration or within the first four years of his term.
The government is trying to work out how to “resolve that obstacle,” said Luis Vicente Leon, head of pollsters Datanalisis, who said it was clear now that Chavez was in a critical condition.
As the constitution says he must be sworn in on January 10, “anything else will be hard to sell without it being construed as an institutional coup,” Leon said.
But Maduro and parliament speaker Diosdado Cabello have left the door open for Chavez to be sworn in later by the Supreme Court.
Cabello has even said that new elections will not be convened on January 10, nor will he himself take over temporarily if Chavez is out of the picture, as the constitution stipulates.