Following an announcement that Chavez had suffered "new complications" from a respiratory infection after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba, people were out in the streets of Caracas on Monday talking about the leftist president's chances of surviving.
"He's history now," said Cesar Amaro, a street vendor selling newspapers and snacks at a kiosk downtown. He motioned to a daily on the rack showing side-by-side photos of Vice President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, and said politics will now turn to them.
The vendor said he expected a new election soon to replace Chavez, who won re-election in October. "For an illness like the one the president has, his days are numbered now," Amaro said.
In Bolivar Plaza in downtown Caracas, 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 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."
Chavez's aides held a Mass at the presidential palace, while government officials urged Venezuelans to keep their leader in their prayers.
Some who stood in Bolivar Plaza held pictures of Chavez. Speaking to the crowd, lawmaker Earle Herrera said that Chavez "is continuing to fight the battle he has to fight."
"He's an undefeated president, and he'll continue to be undefeated," Herrera said.
Political analyst Ricardo Sucre said the outlook for Chavez appeared grim. Noting that Maduro appeared weary during a solemn televised appearance Sunday night to announce the latest setback for Chavez, Sucre said that spoke volumes about the situation.
"Everything suggests Chavez's health situation hasn't evolved as hoped," Sucre said. He said Maduro likely remained in Havana to keep close watch on how Chavez's condition develops.
"These hours should be key to having a more definitive prognosis of Chavez's health, and as a consequence to making the corresponding political decisions according to the constitution," Sucre said.
Sucre and other Venezuelans said it seems increasingly unlikely that Chavez would be able to be sworn in as scheduled Jan. 10 for his new term.
The Venezuelan leader has not been seen or heard from since undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery on Dec. 11, and government officials have said he might not return in time for his inauguration for a new six-year term.
If Chavez dies or is unable to continue in office, the Venezuelan Constitution says that a new election should be held within 30 days.
Before his operation, Chavez 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.
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.
"The situation does not look good," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
"Mentioning twice in his nationally televised speech that Chavez has suffered new complications only reinforces the appearance that the situation is serious," he added.
Smilde said Maduro probably made the trip "to be able to talk to Chavez himself and perhaps to talk to the Castros and other Cuban advisers about how to navigate the possibility of Chavez not being able to be sworn in on Jan. 10."
Medical experts say that it's common for patients who have undergone major surgeries to suffer respiratory infections and that how a patient fares can vary widely from a quick recovery in a couple of days to a fight for life on a respirator.
On the streets of Caracas, images of Chavez smiling and saluting are emblazoned on campaign signs and murals. One newly painted mural reads: "Be strong, Chavez."
Venezuelans rang in the New Year as usual with fireworks raining down all over the capital of Caracas. But one government-organized outdoor party that had been scheduled in Bolivar Plaza with a lineup of Venezuela bands was canceled due to Chavez's precarious condition.
State television played video of Chavez campaigning for re-election, including a speech when he shouted: "I am a nation!"
A new government sign atop a high-rise apartment complex reads: "YOU ALSO ARE CHAVEZ."
Norelys Araque, who was selling holiday cakes on a sidewalk Monday, said she has been praying for Chavez. But, she added, "I don't think he will last long."
Araque said that her family has benefited from state-run subsidized food markets and education programs started by Chavez, and that she hopes the government carries on with the president's programs if he doesn't survive.
Chavez has been in office since 1999 and was re-elected in October, three months after he had announced that his latest tests showed he was cancer-free.
Opposition politicians have criticized a lack of detailed information about Chavez's condition, and last week repeated their demands for a full medical report.
Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, who is the government's science minister and has been with the president in Cuba, urged Venezuelans in a Twitter message Monday night not to believe "bad-intentioned rumors" circulating online. "President Chavez has spent the day calm and stable, accompanied by his children," Arreaza said in the message.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)