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Venezuela frets over ill Chavez as 2013 begins

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pray during a mass in Caracas on December 31, 2012
Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pray during a mass in Caracas on December 31, 2012. Somber Venezuelans began 2013 fretting over Chavez, wondering what the future holds as the president wages a tough battle with cancer in a Havana hospital.

Somber Venezuelans began 2013 fretting over their ubiquitous and garrulous leader Hugo Chavez, wondering what the future holds as the president wages a tough battle with cancer in a Havana hospital.

New Year's Eve revelry was tempered, and official acts -- two open air concerts -- were canceled outright out of respect for the ex-paratrooper who has dominated this oil-rich country so thoroughly since taking power in 1999.

Chavez underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery three weeks ago in Havana and has been bed-ridden ever since. Information on his condition is scant, with the government admitting only to "complications" in his recovery.

The streets of Caracas were practically deserted early Tuesday.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pray for him during a mass in Caracas, on December 31, 2012
Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pray during a mass in Caracas, on December 31, 2012. Somber Venezuelans began 2013 fretting over Chavez, wondering what the future holds as the president wages a tough battle with cancer in a Havana hospital.

"You can feel the sadness in the air. People are sorry about what is happening with Chavez," said a doorman who gave his name as Adrian, alluding to the toned-down parties of the night before.

"I hope we will have a better year in 2013. Nothing will be the same without Chavez, no matter who the next president is."

Twitter has been red hot with comments and rumors to the effect that Chavez, the tough-talking 58-year-old face of the populist left in Latin America, is fading fast or even dead already.

From Havana, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza -- the president's brother in law -- fired back, seeking to restore calm.

"Countrymen, do NOT believe mean-spirited rumors." Arreaza tweeted. "President Chavez spent the day quietly and in stable condition, in the company of his children," the minister wrote on Monday evening.

The country has been in a state of fretful limbo since Sunday's warning that Chavez's recovery was "not without risk."

"It is only natural. We have not seen him in days," said Adrian, the doorman.

Indeed, since Chavez left for Havana more than three weeks ago, he has not appeared in public, nor have photos of him been published -- something highly rare for a man who is usually all over the media in one form or another.

Chavez had declared himself cancer free in July, more than a year after being diagnosed with the disease in the pelvic region. The exact nature of the cancer has never been made public and no official medical report has been released.

Many Venezuelans attended Mass and other religious ceremonies Monday to pray for him.

Chavez won a new term as president in October and was scheduled to be sworn in on January 10. The government and even the opposition now say this ceremony could be delayed, depending on Chavez's recovery.

Under Venezuela's constitution, a presidential election must be held within 30 days if the head of state is incapacitated or dies before his inauguration or within the first four years of his term.

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