Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president, is said to be in "delicate condition" after his latest round of cancer surgery in Cuba.
The Venezuelan people were warned on Wednesday that the newly re-elected president may not be well enough following his fourth cancer-related surgery to attend his January 10 inauguration.
Ernesto Villegas, the information minister, who said the six-hour operation to remove cancerous tissue may keep Chavez from his inauguration, said if Chavez is not back for his scheduled swearing-in for a new six-year term, "our people should be prepared to understand it".
He said it would be irresponsible to hide news about the "delicateness of the current moment and the days to come".
Villegas 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".
Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president, acknowledged that Chavez faced a "complex and hard" process after his latest surgery. Maduro was flanked by Diosdado Cabello, national assembly president, and Rafael Ramirez, oil minister, during his television appearance.
Outpouring of sympathy
Venezuelan state television broadcast religious services in which Chavez's supporters prayed for his health, interspersed with campaign rallies for upcoming gubernatorial elections.
"Onward, Commander!" Elias Jaua, gubernational candidate, shouted to a crowd of supporters at a rally Wednesday.
Many observers said it was likely that Chavez's candidates could get a boost from their supporters' outpouring
of sympathy for Chavez.
Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is running for state office against Jaua,
complained on Wednesday that Chavez's allies are taking advantage of the president's health problems to try to rally support.
He took issue with Jaua's statement to supporters that "we have to vote so that the president recovers".
Chavez was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011.