CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez is breathing with greater difficulty as a new and severe respiratory infection has taken hold, Venezuela's government said, describing the cancer-stricken president's condition as "very delicate."
A brief statement read on national television by Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas late Monday carried the sobering news about the charismatic 58-year-old socialist leader's deteriorating health.
Villegas said Chavez is suffering from "a new, severe infection." The state news agency identified it as respiratory.
Chavez has been undergoing "chemotherapy of strong impact," Villegas added without providing further details.
Chavez has neither been seen nor heard from, except for "proof-of-life" photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.
The government says he returned home on Feb. 18 and has been confined to Caracas' military hospital since.
Villegas said Chavez was "standing by Christ and life conscious of the difficulties he faces."
He also took the opportunity to lash out at "the corrupt Venezuelan right" for what he called a psychological war seeking "scenarios of violence as a pretext for foreign intervention."
The communications minister called on Chavez's supporters, who include thousands of well-armed militiamen, to be "on a war footing."
Upon Chavez's death, the opposition would contest the government's candidate in a snap election that it argues should have been called after Chavez was unable to be sworn in on Jan. 10 as the constitution stipulates.
Indeed, the campaigning has already begun, although undeclared, with Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez has said should succeed him, frequently commandeering all broadcast channels Chavez-style to tout the "revolution" and vilify the opposition.
Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop officer who rose to fame with a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his force of personality.
Chavez was last re-elected on Oct. 7, and his challenger, youthful Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, is expected to again be the opposition's candidate.
On state TV Monday night, opinion show host Mario Silva slung the latest volley of mud at Capriles, claiming his family had purchased a multi-million-dollar New York City apartment with stolen money.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges condemned Villegas' political use of Monday night's health bulletin. "I lament such a poverty of humanity," he tweeted.