Published by The Telegraph //pdf1//
Venezuela's vice-president has accused the country's "historic enemies" of infecting Hugo Chavez with cancer after the government admitted a grave worsening of the "Commandante's" condition.
Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president and Mr Chavez's chosen successor, appeared on television to say that the collapse of leader's health was down to an "attack" by outside forces.
Mr Maduro then accused the US of trying to exploit the power vacuum caused by Mr Chavez's disappearance. The vice-president named one diplomat at the American Embassy in the capital, Caracas, accusing him of running "destabilisation projects" and giving him 24 hours to leave the country. Venezuela later announced the expulsion of a second US official for conspiracy.
"Special measures" were now in hand to prevent any "conspiracies" from succeeding, added Mr Maduro, who said Mr Chavez was undergoing his "most difficult hours" since he flew to Cuba for his fourth round of cancer-related surgery.
He spoke as generals, state governors and ministers gathered in "Miraflores", the presidential palace in Caracas, apparently to prepare for further developments.
Earlier, a sombre communiqué had acknowledged the "worsening" state of Mr Chavez's health. Ernesto Villegas, the information minister, appeared on television to say that a new respiratory infection had complicated the president's cancer.
Mr Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba last month, but this most outgoing of leaders failed to make any public appearances, causing rumours of his demise to sweep Caracas.
"The Comandante remains clinging to Christ and to life, conscious of the difficulties he faces," said Mr Villegas. He added that Mr Chavez was still following the treatment regime laid down by his doctors.
The president's health has been a closely guarded secret and the nature of his cancer has never been officially disclosed. However, the lack of any word from a leader who usually revels in the limelight suggests that Mr Chavez, 58, may no longer be capable of governing.
If he dies, the presidency would pass to Mr Maduro until a new election is held in 30 days. If Mr Chavez is alive but incapacitated, he could also choose to hand over to Mr Maduro, a close ally.
Yesterday, about 30 of the president's supporters gathered inside a chapel at the military hospital in Caracas where their leader now lies. Unusually for fervent fans of the "Commandante", they were not wearing socialist red or waving placards.
Instead, they were subdued and silent. "I had my own terrible cancer," said Domingo Vargas, a 62-year-old pastor who conducted a service to pray for Mr Chavez. "I had no money to pay for the chemotherapy or the treatment. The president paid for it all. Chavez is the heart of the people, the heart of the world."
If Venezuela stands on the brink of a transfer of power, Mr Maduro would probably face Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, in the new elections that would follow next month. The 50-year-old vice-president is a loyal "Chavista", but he lacks the charisma that allowed his mentor to win four elections in a row.
Mr Capriles has criticised the obsessive secrecy surrounding the president's condition, urging Mr Chavez either to demonstrate that he can govern or step aside. "If the president of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to show himself, to talk to Venezuela," he said in January.
Mr Capriles lost a presidential election against Mr Chavez last year. A battle against Mr Maduro might give Venezuela's opposition a new chance.
In 2002, Mr Chavez was briefly toppled in a coup, before being restored by popular demonstrations. His allies believe the US was behind that episode. Constant attacks on America and claims that Washington seeks Mr Chavez's downfall have been themes of his rule.