* VP Maduro says doctors upgraded his status to 'favorable'
* Chavez suffered bleeding after Tuesday's operation
* Supporters hold vigils to pray for his swift return
By Brian Ellsworth and Daniel Wallis
CARACAS, Dec 13 Venezuela's Hugo Chavez suffered
unexpected bleeding caused by a six-hour cancer operation in
Cuba, the government said, although the ailing president's
condition began to improve on Thursday.
The 58-year-old's health has deteriorated dramatically since
he won re-election two months ago, casting doubt on the future
of his "21st century socialism" project, which won him huge
support among the poor but infuriated adversaries who denounce
him as a fledgling dictator.
Officials said Chavez's medical team in Havana had to use
"corrective measures" to stop the bleeding which resulted from
Tuesday's surgery, his fourth cancer operation in 18 months. But
they said his condition had improved since then.
"In the last few hours, his process of recovery has evolved
from stable to favorable," Vice President Nicolas Maduro told a
rally of Socialist Party supporters, who cheered as he spoke.
"That allows us to continue saying that there is a growing
recovery in Comandante Hugo Chavez's situation."
The president claimed he was cured earlier this year, and
was able to campaign for re-election in October, but now looks
to be fighting for his life again. Officials have stressed that
his post-operation process will be long and complex.
The ashen faces of cabinet ministers and somber tone of
their terse official statements since Tuesday's surgery appeared
to suggest top government officials are preparing for the worst.
The president has refused to divulge details of the cancer
that was diagnosed in June of last year.
He won re-election by a big margin in October and is due to
start a new six-year term on Jan. 10. According to the
constitution, if he is unable to do so or steps down after
starting a new term, an election must be held within 30 days.
On Saturday, Chavez anointed Maduro as his heir apparent in
case he had to step down - the first time since he took office
in 1999 that he has named a successor.
The 50-year-old Maduro, a former union organizer and loyal
Chavez disciple who is seen as a pragmatic moderate, would be
the ruling party's candidate.
'FATHERLAND IS SAFE'
The president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, said he planned to
visit Chavez in Cuba, and Venezuelans held vigils and gathered
in plazas to pray for their president's swift return.
State TV launched a spot that opens with Chavez's voice
thundering "I am no longer myself, I am the people," followed by
Venezuelans of all ages telling the camera: "I am Chavez."
Another shows short clips of Chavez singing folk songs with
supporters and reciting poetry. One rally for a "Chavista"
candidate in Sunday's regional elections kicked off with a
recording of the president singing the national anthem.
The Information Ministry published a document with the words
"Loyalty to Chavez - The fatherland is safe" over a picture of
Chavez and Maduro sitting below a painting of liberation hero
Simon Bolivar. Chavez is shown holding an ornate golden replica
of Bolivar's sword.
Senior government officials have begun cautiously preparing
people for the reality that Chavez may not survive.
"At the same time as we pray, we should be ready to turn our
sadness and pain into a force that can mobilize the people,"
Aristobulo Isturiz, a top ally of the president, told a rally of
Even if he dies, Chavez is likely to cast a long shadow over
Venezuela's political landscape for years - not unlike Argentine
leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism is still the ideological
foundation of the country's dominant political party.
Elections shortly after the Venezuelan leader's death could
create an awkward scenario for the opposition. Campaigning on
day-to-day concerns such as crime and inflation would be
difficult in such an emotionally charged atmosphere.
The implications of Chavez's illness go far beyond
Venezuela. Regional allies, most notably Cuba, have for years
relied on him for subsidized oil and fuel shipments.
It could also slow the resurgence of the left in Latin
America and weaken a global "anti-imperialist" alliance
stretching as far as Syria and Iran that has sought to undermine
the influence of the United States.
Energy companies are keenly watching events and hope a
change in government will lead to greater access to the
country's vast crude oil reserves - the world's largest. Years
of combative state takeovers have alienated major oil companies.
Investors who pack their portfolios with Venezuelan bonds,
among the highest-yielding and most widely traded emerging
market debt, are hoping for more fiscal responsibility after a
year of blowout campaign spending.
Venezuela's opposition has begun discussing which candidate
they might field in a new presidential election.
Henrique Capriles, a state governor who lost to Chavez in
October but galvanized the opposition with a nationwide
house-to-house campaign tour, is the obvious choice to face
But he may not be able to count on the support of all the 20
or so parties that make up the opposition's coalition, some of
which are anxious to field their own candidate. The opposition
hopes to retain its seven state governorships out of 23.
The key will be whether Capriles can win re-election on
Sunday as governor of Miranda state, where he faces a challenge
from Elias Jaua, a Chavez protege and former vice president. If
Capriles loses, half a dozen opposition figures could emerge as
possible candidates for a new presidential election.
The polls in Miranda are mixed, with one showing Capriles
way ahead and another giving Jaua a 5 percentage point lead.
Rallies for Socialist Party candidates ahead of Sunday's
vote have become mass vigils for the president's health.
"We have a great chance to win all 23 governorships. That
would be the best support we can give Chavez," the president's
brother Adan, who is running for re-election in Barinas state,
told a rally.