Confirming the president's deteriorating health, the Venezuelan government now describes Hugo Chávez being in "very delicate" condition after confirming he has a new infection.

A brief statement read on national television by Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas late Monday carried the sobering news about the charismatic 58-year-old socialist leader's latest turn for the worse.

Villegas said Chávez is suffering from "a new, severe infection" respiratory infection which has made breathing more difficult.

Chávez, 58, has been undergoing "chemotherapy of strong impact," Villegas added without providing further details.

Chávez has neither been seen nor heard from, except for "proof-of-life" photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.

The government says he returned home on Feb. 18 and has been confined to Caracas' military hospital since.

Villegas said Chávez was "standing by Christ and life conscious of the difficulties he faces."

He also took the opportunity to lash out at "the corrupt Venezuelan right" for what he called a psychological war seeking "scenarios of violence as a pretext for foreign intervention."

He called on Chávez's supporters, who include thousands of well-armed militiamen, to be "on a war footing."

Upon Chávez's death, the opposition would contest the government's candidate in a snap election that it argues should have been called after Chávez was unable to be sworn in on Jan. 10 as the constitution stipulates.

Indeed, the campaigning has already begun, although undeclared, with Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chávez has said should succeed him, frequently commandeering all broadcast channels Chávez-style to tout the "revolution" and vilify the opposition.

Chávez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratrooper who rose to fame with a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his force of personality.

Chávez was last re-elected on Oct. 7, and his challenger, youthful Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, is expected to again be the opposition's candidate.

On state TV Monday night, opinion show host Mario Silva slung the latest volley of mud at Capriles, claiming his family had purchased a multi-million-dollar New York City apartment with stolen money.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges condemned Villegas' political use of Monday night's health bulletin. "I lament such a poverty of humanity," he tweeted.

Pro-Chávez militant Enrique Barroso sounded grave when reached by telephone.

"This is not easy for him nor for us," he said. "We call on the people to pray and hold vigil for the health of the president."

One of Chávez's three daughters, Maria Gabriela, expressed thanks to well-wishers via her Twitter account. "We will prevail!" she wrote, echoing a favorite phrase of her father. "With God always."

There has been speculation that Chávez's cancer has spread to his lungs and can't be halted.

An oncologist not involved in Chávez's treatment, which has been conducted in tightly enforced secrecy, told The Associated Press that he viewed Villegas' statement as recognition that Chávez's condition is "truly precarious."

He called into question the veracity of Villegas' statement that Chávez had been undergoing chemotherapy, saying patients in such a delicate state are not put on chemotherapy.

Maduro said last week, in the first such announcement, that the president had begun receiving chemotherapy around the end of January.

Doctors have said that such therapy was not necessarily to try to beat Chávez's cancer into remission but could have been palliative, to extend Chávez's life and ease his suffering.

While in Cuba, Chávez suffered a severe respiratory infection in late December that nearly killed him, Maduro said last week. A tracheal tube was inserted then and government officials have said his breathing remained labored.

They have sent mixed signals throughout Chávez's post-operative days, and in an early February opinion survey nearly three in five Venezuelans said they believed the president whose largesse has endeared him to the poor would recover.

In Cuba, Chávez has undergone a series of radiation treatments and chemotherapy after his operations.

The entire treatment regimen was kept far from public scrutiny.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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