(AP) Information Minister Ernesto Villegas warned Venezuelans on Wednesday that ailing President Hugo Chavez may not be well enough after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba to be inaugurated on Jan. 10.
Moving to prepare the public for the possibility of more bad news, Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked grim earlier in the day when he acknowledged that Chavez faced a complex and hard process after his latest surgery.
At the same time, the officials strove to show a united front amid the growing worries about Chavez's health and the country's future.
In an apparent symbolic show of unity, Maduro was flanked by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez during his television appearance.
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.
Tapped by the 58-year-old president over the weekend as his chosen political heir, Maduro is considered to be a member of radical left wing of Chavez's movement that is closely aligned with Cuba's communist government.
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.
At campaign rallies ahead of Sunday's gubernatorial elections, Chavez's candidates urged Venezuelans to vote for pro-government candidates while they also called for the president to get well.
Onward, Commander! gubernatorial candidate Elias Jaua 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.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is running for state office against Jaua, complained 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.
Villegas expressed hope about the president returning, but said if Chavez isn't back for his scheduled swearing-in for a new six-year term, our people should be prepared to understand it.
The minister 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.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also acknowledged the possibility of losing his close ally, while wishing him the best. Chavez is very important for Latin America, but if he can't continue at the head of Venezuela, the processes of change have to continue, Correa said.
Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, his voice hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the pre-dawn hours with Cabello and Ramirez. The pair returned to Venezuela about 3 a.m. after accompanying Chavez to Cuba for his surgery.
It was a complex, difficult, delicate operation, Maduro said. The post-operative process is also going to be a complex and hard process.
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.
If Chavez were to die or be unable to continue in office, the constitution says that new elections should be held within 30 days. Chavez said on Saturday that if such new elections were held, Maduro should be elected president in his place.
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.
The dramatic events of this week, with Chavez suddenly taking a turn for the worse, had some Venezuelans wondering whether they were being told the truth because just a few months ago the president was running for his fourth presidential term and had said he was free of cancer.
Lawyer Maria Alicia Altuve, who was out in bustling crowds in a shopping district of downtown Caracas, said it seemed odd how Maduro wept at a political rally while talking about Chavez.
He cries on television to set up a drama, so that people go vote for poor Chavez, Altuve said. So we don't know if this illness is for that, or if it's that this man is truly sick.
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.
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.