Backers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were in no mood to celebrate New Year’s Eve as the cancer-stricken leftist leader took a turn for the worse, fueling doubts about his political future.
The streets of Caracas were quiet on Monday night as the government called off festivities after announcing that Chavez suffered “new complications” from a respiratory infection following his fourth cancer-related surgery on December 11.
His vice president and political heir, Nicolas Maduro, broke the news from Havana, Cuba, on Sunday night, saying the condition of the 58-year-old leader was delicate and that he faced an uphill battle.
For many Venezuelans, the holiday season was not the same without their ubiquitous “Comandante”, the face of the Latin American left and fierce critic of the US who has led the oil-rich nation for 14 years.
Crews took down the stage of a downtown concert site while Information Minister Ernesto Villegas urged families “to ring in the New Year at home, praying and expressing hope for the health” of Chavez.
Several ministers attended a special Mass in support of Chavez at the Miraflores presidential palace at midday.
Chavez’s son-in-law said the Venezuelan president is in a stable condition and spent Monday with his daughters.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Caracas, said the country “is suddenly left with a lot of uncertainty” since Maduro left for Cuba.
“The president’s supporters are extremely worried about the current situation,” Bo said. “They are afraid that political instability could take over Venezuela once again.”
‘Health of our commander’
At a meeting point for Chavez followers in the Plaza Bolivar, “Chavistas” teared up as they contemplated the health of their leader.
“We are all praying for the health of our commander,” said Miriam, one of the people gathered at the square. “There can’t be any party here.”
Mireya de la Fe, a teacher, was taken aback by the president’s new health setback.
“I am shaken and very sad. I could not imagine the seriousness [of his situation]” she said.
Chavez had declared himself cancer-free in July, more than a year after being diagnosed with the disease in the pelvic region. The exact nature of the cancer has never been made public.
He was re-elected in October but announced a relapse earlier this month and rushed to Cuba for another operation.
Twitter hashtags on Monday translating into expressions such as “Chavez will live and conquer” and “I love Chavez” were numerous, while others speculated about his health.
One of the people discussing Chavez’s health was Jose Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor who lives in the United States and has claimed in the past to have reliable sources informing him about the president.
“The respiratory failure continues without any improvement and the kidney function continues to deteriorate,” he wrote on Twitter. The government has denied such rumors.
Science minister Jorge Arreaza urged supporters to ignore rumours about Chavez’ health following a fourth cancer-related operation.
Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in on January 10 but the government has indicated that the ceremony could be postponed if the president is not fit by then.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October 7 election, said last week that the swearing-in could be postponed.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, a presidential election must be held within 30 days if the head of state is incapacitated or dies before his inauguration or within the first four years of his term.
“But if Chavez is alive, there’s an ongoing debate – the government says that that inauguration can be postponed, but the opposition is saying that that’s unconstitutional, and that elections should be called,” said Teresa Bo.