By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER and IAN JAMES
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - President Hugo Chavez is due to be sworn in for a new term in less than a week and his closest allies still aren't saying what they plan to do if the ailing leader is unable to return from a Cuban hospital to take the oath of office.
The Venezuelan government on Thursday night described Chavez's lung infection as "severe" and said he is now being treated for "respiratory deficiency."
Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 cancer surgery, and speculation has grown that his illness could be reaching its final stages. The president's elder brother Adan and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello joined a parade of visitors who saw Chavez in Havana this week, and then returned to Caracas on Thursday along with Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
"In the past hours, we've been accompanying President Hugo Chavez and taking him the courage and strength of the Venezuelan people," Maduro said on television. Appearing next to Cabello visiting a government-run coffee plant in Caracas, he said they had been with Chavez together with the president's brother, his son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores.
Chavez's health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan. 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed, whether Supreme Court justices might travel to Havana to administer the oath of office, and, most of all, what will happen if Chavez can't begin his new term.
The main fault lines run between Chavez's backers and opponents.
But while the president's allies so far appear united, analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, and Cabello, who is thought to wield power within the military and who would be in line to temporarily assume the presidency until a new election can be held.
Standing together on Thursday, Maduro and Cabello said they are more united than ever.
"We've sworn before commander Hugo Chavez, and we've ratified the oath today before commander Chavez, that we're going to be united, together with our people, with the greatest loyalty," Maduro said.
He and Cabello dismissed rumors of divisions waiting to erupt, calling such talk lies cooked up by their adversaries.
"They're going to spend 2,000 years waiting for that to happen," Cabello said, urging Venezuelans: "Don't fall for the opposition's rumors."
"We aren't going to betray the nation," Cabello added.
The former military officer has been making similar assurances on Twitter and suggesting that the socialist party has its plans for the coming days all thought out.
"We Chavistas are very clear on what we will do," Cabello said in one message.
But the plans of Chavez's allies remain a mystery.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, and officials have raised the possibility that Chavez might not be well enough to do that, without saying what will happen if he can't.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas provided the latest update on Chavez's condition Thursday night.
"Chavez has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commander Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment," Villegas said, reading from a statement.
The government expressed confidence in Chavez's medical team and condemned what it called "a campaign of psychological warfare" in the international media regarding the president's condition.
Chavez said before his fourth cancer-related operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should finish his current term and be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly, who is now Cabello. It says a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days.
Opposition leaders have argued that Chavez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in October, seems no longer fit to continue as president and have demanded that a new election be held within 30 days if he isn't in Caracas on inauguration day.
But some of Chavez's close confidants dismiss the view that the inauguration date is a hard deadline, saying Chavez could be given more time to recover from his surgery if necessary.
Cabello noted last month that the constitution says if a president is unable to be sworn in by the legislature, he may be sworn in by Supreme Court justices, who were appointed by the mostly pro-Chavez legislature.