Hugo Chávez’s health appears to be quickly deteriorating.
Somberly reading a statement on national TV, Venezuela's Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said "Chávez has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commander Chávez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment."
The statement raised the possibility that Chávez might be breathing with the assistance of a machine or even in an induced coma. But the government is not giving any further details.
This week, the president's elder brother Adan and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello joined a parade of visitors who saw Chávez in Havana, and then returned to Caracas on Thursday along with Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
"In the past hours, we've been accompanying President Hugo Chávez and taking him the courage and strength of the Venezuelan people," Maduro said on television. Appearing next to Cabello visiting a government-run coffee plant in Caracas, he said they had been with Chávez together with the president's brother, his son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores.
Chávez's health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan. 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed and what will happen if Chávez can't begin his new term. The plans of Chávez's allies remain a mystery.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, and officials have raised the possibility that Chávez might not be well enough to do that, without saying what will happen if he can't.
The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly, who is now Cabello. It says a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days.
Opposition leaders have argued that Chávez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in October, seems no longer fit to continue as president and have demanded that a new election be held within 30 days if he isn't in Caracas on inauguration day.
But some of Chávez's close confidants dismiss the view that the inauguration date is a hard deadline, saying Chávez could be given more time to recover from his surgery if necessary.
Aristobulo Isturiz, a state governor and leader of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, said Thursday that if Chávez's swearing-in isn't held Jan. 10, it will be up to the Supreme Court to determine the place and date of the ceremony.
"The president has a right to recover," Isturiz said in remarks published by the state-run Venezuelan News Agency.
Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an opposition politician, proposed on Thursday that a commission travel to Cuba to determine the state of Chávez's health. He said the delegation should be made up of doctors, lawmakers and other officials such as state governors, including opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
"I'm not asking for permission to go to Cuba. I think it's our right to go there and see what's going on," Ledezma said in comments reported by the television channel Globovisión. "Enough mysteries. Venezuela isn't a colony of Cuba."
Some of the brewing disagreements could begin to be aired Saturday, when the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chávez majority, convenes to select legislative leaders. That session will be held just five days before the scheduled inauguration day.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.