- Associated Press - Monday, December 31, 2012

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is confronting “new complications” because of 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.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression in a televised address from Havana on Sunday. He described Mr. Chavez‘s condition as delicate.

“Several minutes ago we were with President Chavez. We greeted each other, and he himself referred to these complications,” Mr. Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.

The vice president’s comments suggest an increasingly difficult fight for Mr. Chavez. The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Maduro was seated alongside Mr. Chavez’s eldest daughter, Rosa, and son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, as well as 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,” Mr. Maduro said.

Mr. Maduro said he had met various times with Mr. Chavez‘s medical team and relatives. He said he would remain in Havana “for the coming hours” but didn’t specify how long.

Mr. Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for a sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Mr. Chavez since the surgery in Cuba, where the president’s mentor, Fidel Castro, reportedly has made regular visits to check on him.

Before flying to Cuba, Mr. Maduro said that 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.

Mr. Smilde said that Mr. 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,” Mr. Smilde said.

Before his operation, Mr. Chavez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Mr. Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.

Mr. 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.

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