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Chavez has respiratory infection, now 'controlled'

Wednesday - 12/19/2012, 12:22am  ET

A boy plays in front of a graffiti that reads in Spanish "Chavez, heart of my homeland" at the neighborhood of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Smarting after a bruising loss in state elections, Venezuela's opposition will now be forced to reassess its strategy and rebuild quickly to prepare for presidential elections that many expect could be called to replace ailing leftist President Hugo Chavez. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

VIVIAN SEQUERA
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has a respiratory infection after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba and must have "complete rest" for the next few days, the government said Tuesday.

The socialist leader is in stable condition after being diagnosed with the respiratory infection on Monday, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on television, reading a government statement.

"It has been controlled," Villegas said. "In the opinion of the doctors, this type of ailment is one of the consequences that appear with the greatest frequency in patients who have undergone complicated surgeries."

The infection appeared a week after a six-hour operation that the government has said involved complications.

"The medical team has said that President Chavez should have complete rest in the coming days and receive ... the prescribed medical treatment, with the purpose of maintaining the stability of his vital signs that he currently enjoys," Villegas said.

Concluding the statement, he said: "Long live Chavez!"

Tuesday's announcement came amid uncertainty and concern over the 58-year-old president's health.

Chavez hasn't spoken publicly since his Dec. 11 surgery for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. It was his fourth cancer-related operation since June 2011.

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.

Five experts consulted by The Associated Press agreed that it's hard to predict what Chavez's likely scenario might be given the available information.

"If it's not a pneumonia ... it can be resolved in 48 hours with the proper antibiotics," said Dr. Maria Crista de Blanco, an internist at the University Hospital of Caracas.

Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the Colombian League Against Cancer in Bogota, said that because Chavez has gone through chemotherapy and has probably been taking steroids, his immune system is weakened and complications of various sorts may be more likely.

"That he's stable doesn't mean that he's completely been cured of the infection," Castro told the AP in a phone interview. "I don't think he's out of danger. The first 10 days after surgery are very critical, and anything can happen."

He said that Chavez must be in an intensive care unit and under constant observation.

Chavez's elder brother, Adan, planned to travel to Cuba on Tuesday to visit the president, the government newspaper Correo del Orinoco reported. It also said that the president's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, had plans to travel to Havana and that Chavez's mother might go with him, though that had not been confirmed.

Against the backdrop of Chavez's illness, many Venezuelans are talking about the possibility of a looming transition of power and a new presidential election. Before undergoing surgery, Chavez designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor to take his place if necessary.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed concern Tuesday about what might happen if a post-Chavez transition were to go badly. In a radio interview, he said a peaceful and problem-free change would have "no repercussion in the region."

"What would be terrible is if that transition weren't easy, were problematic," Santos said in an interview with Colombia's W Radio. "That would generate problems in the region. That's why I've said that Chavez is a factor of stability at this time."

Chavez's government has been appointed a facilitator in peace talks between Colombia's government and rebels, and Santos noted that he has had a good relationship with Venezuela's leftist leader despite their differences.

"I hope it stays that way, whether with Chavez or with his replacement," Santos said, adding that he had spoken with Maduro on various occasions.

Government officials say the president's four children and a son-in-law have been with him in Havana since the operation. The government has said Chavez suffered complications during the operation but has been recovering.

Santos said he didn't have specific information about Chavez's condition.

"I know that it's complicated," Santos said in the interview. "He wouldn't have said goodbye in that way if he didn't have complications, but today I don't know his exact state of health, and nobody does."

"We've discussed this with other presidents, and the truth is they aren't very informed about exactly what state of health he is in today," Santos added.

The leaders of Bolivia and Uruguay have both expressed interest in traveling to Havana to visit Chavez, though so far neither has made the trip.

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