CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez's new complications after cancer surgery prompted his closest allies to call for Venezuelans to pray for him Monday, presenting an increasingly bleak outlook and prompting growing speculation about whether the ailing leader, who is hospitalized in Cuba, has much longer to live.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro looked weary and spoke with a solemn expression as he announced in a televised address Sunday from Havana that Mr. Chavez now confronts "new complications" due to a respiratory infection nearly three weeks after his operation. He described Mr. Chavez's condition as delicate.
The streets of Caracas were abuzz Monday with talk of Mr. Chavez's increasingly tough fight, while the news topped the front pages of the country's newspapers.
"He's history now," said Cesar Amaro, a street 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 Mr. Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, and said politics will now turn to them.
Mr. Amaro said he expects a new election soon to replace Mr. Chavez. "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, Mr. Chavez'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 Mr. Chavez.
"This country would be terrible without Chavez. 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 Mr. Chavez appears grim, saying Mr. Maduro's body language during his televised appearance spoke volumes.
Mr. Sucre and other Venezuelans said it seems increasingly unlikely that Mr. Chavez would be able to be sworn in as scheduled Jan. 10.
The Venezuelan leader 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.
If Mr. Chavez dies or is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution says a new election should be held within 30 days.
Before his operation, Mr. Chavez acknowledged he faced risks and designated Mr. Maduro as his successor, telling supporters they should vote for the vice president if a new presidential election were necessary.
Mr. Chavez 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.
Mr. Maduro said Sunday that he had met with Mr. Chavez. "We greeted each other, and he himself referred to these complications," Mr. Maduro said, reading from a prepared statement.
"The president gave us precise instructions so that, after finishing the visit, we would tell the [Venezuelan] people about his current health condition," Mr. Maduro said. "President Chavez's state of health continues to be delicate, with complications that are being attended to, in a process not without risks."
Mr. Maduro was seated alongside Mr. Chavez's eldest daughter, Rosa, and son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, as well as Attorney General Cilia Flores. Mr. Maduro held up a copy of a newspaper confirming that his message was recorded Sunday.
Mr. Maduro, who arrived in Havana on Saturday for the sudden and unexpected trip, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to see Mr. Chavez since the surgery in Cuba, where the president's mentor Fidel Castro has reportedly made regular visits to check on him.
Before flying to Cuba, Mr. Maduro said Energy Minister Hector Navarro would be in charge of government affairs in the meantime.