CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez's new complications after cancer surgery prompted his closest allies to call for Venezuelans to pray for him on Monday, presenting an increasingly bleak outlook and prompting growing speculation about whether the ailing leader has much longer to live.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression as he announced in a televised address from Havana on Sunday that Chávez now confronts "new complications" due to a respiratory infection nearly three weeks after his operation. He described Chávez's condition as delicate.
The streets of Caracas were abuzz on Monday with talk of Chávez's increasingly tough fight, while the news topped the front pages of the country's newspapers.
"He's history now," said Cesar Amaro, a vendor selling newspapers and snacks at a kiosk in downtown Caracas. He motioned to a daily on the rack showing side-by-side photos of Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, and said politics will now turn to them.
Amaro said he expects a new election to replace Chávez. "For an illness like the one the president has, his days are numbered now," he said matter-of-factly.
In Bolivar Plaza in downtown Caracas, Chávez's supporters strummed guitars and read poetry in his honor on New Year's Eve. They sang along with a recording of the president belting out the national anthem.
About 300 people filled a Caracas church for a Mass to pray for Chávez.
"This country would be terrible without Chávez. He's the president of the poor," said Josefa Carvajal, a 75-year-old former maid who sat in the pews. "They say the president is very sick. I believe he's going to get better."
The president's aides held a Mass at the presidential palace, while government officials urged Venezuelans to keep their president in their prayers.
Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said the outlook for Chávez appears grim, saying Maduro's body language during his televised appearance spoke volumes.
"Everything suggests Chávez's health situation hasn't evolved as hoped," Sucre said. He said Maduro likely remained in Havana to keep close watch on how Chávez's condition develops.
"These hours should be key to having a more definitive prognosis of Chávez's health, and as a consequence make the corresponding political decisions according to the constitution," Sucre said.
Sucre and other Venezuelans said it seems increasingly unlikely that Chávez would be able to be sworn in as scheduled on Jan. 10.
He has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his inauguration for a new six-year term. Chávez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October.
If Chávez dies or is unable to continue in office, the constitution says that a new election should be held within 30 days.
Before his operation, Chávez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.
Chávez said at the time that his cancer had come back despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has been fighting an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer since June 2011.
Maduro said on Sunday that he had met with Chávez. "We greeted each other and he himself referred to these complications," Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.
Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for the sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Chávez since the surgery in Cuba, where the president's mentor Fidel Castro has reportedly made regular visits to check on him.