By Anna Pelegri | AFP
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s vice president and acting leader Nicolas Maduro warned the nation of a tough road ahead Wednesday, saying President Hugo Chávez faced a “difficult” recovery from cancer surgery.
His six-hour operation “was complex, difficult, delicate, which tells us that the post-surgery process also will be complex and difficult,” Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, said in a national radio and TV broadcast.
The president “was very clear” that the country must be “prepared to face a tough and difficult situation” that can be overcome only if Venezuelans remain “united,” said Maduro, who was flanked by senior government officials.
In one flash of confidence he did say: “Sooner rather than later, we will have our comandante here,” but he gave no indication of when Chávez might return to Venezuela following Tuesday’s fourth round of cancer surgery.
The type, location and severity of Chávez’s cancer have been kept secret over the past 18 months, fueling rumors and uncertainty in Venezuela.
Chávez flew to Havana for surgery on Monday after revealing that his cancer had returned just two months after his triumphant re-election to a new six-year term that begins on Jan. 10.
The 58-year-old president was first diagnosed with the disease in June 2011. After three rounds of surgery, in addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Chávez assured Venezuelans earlier this year that he was cancer-free.
The operation “ended correctly and successfully,” Maduro, to whom Chávez delegated power before flying to Havana, told Venezuelans late Tuesday.
The vice president described the procedure as a “corrective surgery of a lesion” that occurred in the pelvic region, but did not elaborate.
Without formally handing over the presidency, Chávez said he was delegating the country’s “high political command” to Maduro, 50, while he was gone, and said the vice president would succeed him if he became incapacitated.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is incapacitated.
Chávez supporters held religious services and candlelight vigils across the country, praying for their leader to overcome the disease.
On Wednesday, Cabinet members, staff, honor guards and members of the Venezuelan military went to a special Catholic mass at the Miraflores government palace to pray for the president’s health. The event was re-broadcast on government VTV television.
State television also has been broadcasting spots praising Chávez’s accomplishments, as well as a pro-government documentary titled “From Bolívar to Chávez.”
In the downtown plaza of La Candelaria, a group of Chávez supporters wrote messages of support for their leader on an enormous white sheet.
Storekeeper Heli González, himself a cancer survivor, said he was closely following news of Chávez’s health.
“Chávez is a human being who has shown concern for the people,” González told AFP. “I’m glad to hear that the operation was successful.”
González, however, thought it was unlikely Chávez would soon be back in Venezuela. “We’re talking about cancer; healing it is a terrible process,” he said.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who visited Chávez on Monday, expressed concern over the “very delicate operation.”
Correa, a firebrand leftist economist who could succeed Chávez as leader of the Latin American left, flew to the Venezuelan’s side in Havana where he found him in “great spirits” before the operation.
Correa said he had also visited Cuban President Raúl Castro and his predecessor, Fidel Castro, during his daylong stay in the Cuban capital.