CARACAS, Venezuela - Information Minister Ernesto Villegas warned Venezuelans on Wednesday that President Hugo Chavez might not be well enough after his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba to be inaugurated 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 TV appearance.
Analysts say Maduro could eventually face challenges in trying to hold together the president's diverse "Chavismo" movement, consisting of radical leftists, moderates, and military factions.
Tapped by the 58-year-old president over the weekend as his political heir, Maduro is considered to be a member of the radical left wing that is closely aligned with Cuba's government.
State TV broadcast religious services in which Chavez's supporters prayed for his health, interspersed with campaign rallies for gubernatorial elections.
On the streets of Caracas, people on both sides of the political divide voiced concern for Chavez's condition.
Maduro looked sad as he spoke on television, his voice hoarse and cracked at times after meeting in the predawn 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 postoperative process is also going to be a complex and hard process."
If Chavez were to die, 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.
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.
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.
Throughout his treatments in Cuba, Chavez has kept secret some details of his illness, including the exact location and type of the tumors.