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Venezuelans take in shifting news on Chavez health

Associated Press
People, one of them holding an image of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, gather to pray for him at a church in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 31, 2012. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is confronting "new complications" due to a respiratory infection nearly three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery, his Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Sunday evening in Cuba as he visited the ailing leader for the first time since his operation. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans began 2013 with a respite from shifting news about the health of President Hugo Chavez, who hasn't been seen in public since his fourth cancer-related surgery three weeks ago.

The country was largely peaceful Tuesday after a New Year's Eve that saw a main government-organized celebration canceled due to Chavez's illness.

Jorge Rodriguez, a Chavez ally and mayor of a Caracas district, reiterated that the president is going through a "complex post-operative process."

He told reporters Tuesday that Venezuelans have shown an outpouring of compassion and support for a leader who has "been planted in the hearts of millions." Rodriguez urged Venezuelans to keep Chavez in their prayers and expressed hope the president would recover.

Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, who is the government's science minister and has been with the president in Cuba, urged Venezuelans in a Twitter message Monday night not to believe "bad-intentioned rumors" circulating online. "President Chavez has spent the day calm and stable, accompanied by his children," Arreaza said in the message.

That followed a grim announcement from Vice President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday that the president had suffered new complications due to a respiratory infection that appeared after the surgery.

Bolivian President Evo Morales issued a New Year Eve greeting to Chavez lamenting the health problems plaguing his "anti-imperialist comrade."

Morales said he was sending wishes for "strength, energy, and for him to be able to recover soon." Morales made a visit to Havana last week to visit Chavez, but didn't refer to that trip.

In Bolivar Plaza in downtown Caracas, Chavez's supporters strummed guitars and read poetry in his honor on Monday night, singing along with a recording of the president belting out the national anthem.

About 300 people also filled a Caracas church for a Mass to pray for Chavez.

"This country would be terrible without Chavez. He's the president of the poor," said Josefa Carvajal, a 75-year-old former maid who sat in the pews. "They say the president is very sick. I believe he's going to get better."

Chavez's aides held a Mass as well, at the presidential palace, while government officials urged Venezuelans to keep their leader in their prayers.

Venezuelans rang in the New Year as usual with fireworks raining down all over the capital of Caracas. But some of Chavez's supporters had long faces as they gathered in Bolivar Plaza on Monday night holding pictures of the president. A government-sponsored celebration there had been called off.

Speaking to the crowd, lawmaker Earle Herrera said Chavez "is continuing to fight the battle he has to fight."

"He's an undefeated president, and he'll continue to be undefeated," Herrera said.

Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said the outlook for Chavez appeared dark. Sucre noted that Maduro appeared weary during a solemn televised appearance Sunday to announce the latest setback for Chavez.

"Everything suggests Chavez's health situation hasn't evolved as hoped," Sucre said. He said Maduro likely remained in Havana to keep close watch on how Chavez's condition develops.

"These hours should be key to having a more definitive prognosis of Chavez's health, and as a consequence to making the corresponding political decisions according to the constitution," Sucre said.

Sucre and other Venezuelans said it seems increasingly unlikely that Chavez would be able to be sworn in as scheduled Jan. 10 for his new term. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing the Dec. 11 operation.

If Chavez dies or is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution says a new election should be held within 30 days.

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 was 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 2011.

Medical experts say it's 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.

On the streets of Caracas, images of Chavez smiling and saluting were emblazoned on campaign signs and murals. One newly painted mural read: "Be strong, Chavez."

State television played video of Chavez campaigning for re-election, including one of the president shouting: "I am a nation!"

A new government sign atop a high-rise apartment complex reads: "YOU ALSO ARE CHAVEZ."

Norelys Araque, who was selling holiday cakes on a sidewalk Monday, said she has been praying for Chavez. But, she added, "I don't think he will last long."

Araque said her family has benefited from state-run subsidized food markets and education programs started by Chavez, and that she hopes the government carries on with the president's programs if he doesn't survive.

Chavez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October, three months after he had announced that his latest tests showed he was cancer-free.

Opposition politicians have criticized the government for not providing information about Chavez's condition, and last week repeated their demands for a full medical report.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap

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