CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's information minister said Wednesday there's a possibility that ailing President Hugo Chavez may not be well enough after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba to return home in time for his Jan. 10 inauguration.
Amid growing worries about Chavez's health and the country's future, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas expressed hope about the president's recovery. But he said that if Chavez isn't back for his scheduled swearing-in for a new six-year term, "our people should be prepared to understand it."
Villegas said it would be "irresponsible" to hide news about the "delicateness of the current moment and the days to come." He asked Venezuelans to see any potential delay in Chavez's return as "when we have a sick father, in a delicate situation after four surgeries in a year and a half."
Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim earlier in the day when he warned Venezuelans that Chavez faces a "complex and hard" process after his latest surgery.
The government's announcements came one day after Chavez's operation. Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, standing alongside two top officials who accompanied the president to Havana.
"It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation," said Maduro, whose voice was hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the pre-dawn hours with the officials who went to Cuba. "The post-operative process is also going to be a complex and hard process."
Venezuelan state television broadcast religious services in which Chavez's supporters prayed for his health, interspersed with campaign rallies for upcoming gubernatorial elections.
On the streets of Caracas, people on both sides of the country's deep political divide voiced concerns about Chavez's condition and what might happen if he died.
Maduro, tapped by Chavez over the weekend as his chosen political heir, was flanked by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez during the television appearance in an apparent symbolic show of unity.
Analysts say Maduro could eventually face challenges in trying to hold together the president's diverse "Chavismo" movement, which includes groups from radical leftists to moderates, as well as military factions.
Maduro is considered to be a member of radical left wing of Chavez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government.
Cabello and Ramirez, who accompanied the president to Havana for the surgery, returned to Caracas at about 3 a.m. Wednesday and talked with the vice president about the president's health situation until daybreak.
Without giving details, Maduro reiterated Chavez's recent remarks that the surgery presented risks and that people should be prepared for any "difficult scenarios, which can be faced only with the unity of the people." Still, he expressed optimism Chavez would return home.
"We're more united than ever," said Maduro. "We're united in loyalty to Chavez."
The vice president criticized the opposition, accusing it of using Chavez's illness to attack him. Some political adversaries have said the president should be more forthcoming about details of his pelvic cancer.
Maduro announced Tuesday night that the operation concluded successfully after more than six hours and that Chavez was to begin "special treatments," which he didn't specify. Chavez's children and grandchildren accompanied him in Havana during the surgery, the vice president said.
Chavez announced over the weekend that he needed to have surgery again after tests showed "some malignant cells" had reappeared in the same area of his pelvic region where tumors were previously removed.
He also said Saturday for the first time that if illness cuts his presidency short, Maduro should take his place and be elected president to continue on with his socialist movement.
The 58-year-old Chavez won re-election in October and is due to be sworn in for a new six-year term Jan. 10. If Chavez were to die, the constitution says new elections should be called and held within 30 days.
Throughout his nearly 14-year-old presidency, Chavez has been loved by some Venezuelans and reviled by others as he has nationalized companies, crusaded against U.S. influence and labeled his enemies "oligarchs" and "squalid ones."
Some Chavez supporters said they find it hard to think about losing the president and are worried about the future.
Others Venezuelans said that while they're sorry about Chavez's health and wish him the best, it isn't a particular concern for them. Many were out buying Christmas gifts and food as they prepared for the holiday season.
"The truth is that I have not paid much attention to the news. I just know the president is very sick and he went to Cuba for an operation," said Gabriela Hernandez, a nurse and opposition supporter. "I hope that he can get better. ... I don't wish for misfortune for anybody."
Omar Mendez, a shopkeeper who said he doesn't support Chavez or the opposition, was among several who worried about the possibility of political upheaval if Chavez doesn't survive.
"Many people don't dare to say it, but they want Chavez's death," Mendez said. "I would say something to those people: They should think hard about the consequences if Chavez does not survive this terrible illness because Chavez's death could bring about an unprecedented political crisis."
Chavez first announced he had been diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. He underwent a surgery for a pelvic abscess, and then had a baseball-sized tumor removed. In February, he underwent another surgery when a tumor reappeared in the same area.
He has also undergone months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Throughout his treatments in Cuba, Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, including the exact location and type of the tumors.
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.