Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is confronting “new complications” due to a respiratory infection nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery, his vice president said in Cuba as he visited the ailing leader for the first time since his operation.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression in a televised address from Havana on Sunday. He did not give details about the complications, but described Chavez’s condition as delicate.
“Several minutes ago, we were with President Chavez. We greeted each other and he himself referred to these complications,” Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.
The vice president’s comments suggest an increasingly difficult fight for Chavez. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery on Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration for a new six-year term.
“The president gave us precise instructions so that, after finishing the visit, we would tell the [Venezuelan] people about his current health condition,” Maduro said. “President Chavez’s state of health continues to be delicate, with complications that are being attended to, in a process not without risks.”
Maduro was seated alongside Chavez’s eldest daughter, Rosa, and son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, as well as Venezuelan Attorney General Cilia Flores. He held up a copy of a newspaper confirming that his message was recorded on Sunday.
“Thanks to his physical and spiritual strength, Comandante Chavez is facing this difficult situation,” Maduro said.
Maduro said he had met various times with Chavez’s medical team and relatives.
He said he would remain in Havana “for the coming hours,” but did not specify how long.
Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for a sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Chavez since the surgery in Cuba.
Before flying to Cuba, Maduro said that Venezuelan Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.
“The situation does not look good. The fact that Maduro himself would go to Cuba, leaving Hector Navarro in charge, only seems understandable if Chavez’s health is precarious,” said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
Smilde said that Maduro probably made the trip “to be able to talk to Chavez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chavez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10.”
“Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chavez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious,” Smilde said.
Before his operation, Chavez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.
Chavez said at the time that his cancer had come back, despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has been fighting an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June last year.
Medical experts say that it is common for patients who have undergone major surgeries to suffer respiratory infections and that how a patient fares can vary widely from a quick recovery in a couple of days to a fight for life on a respirator.