Venezuela is facing political turmoil and the possibility of new elections as it becomes increasingly unlikely that President Hugo Chavez will recover his health in time to be inaugurated for a new term next week.
The government, which has given only vague updates on his condition since he flew to Cuba for treatment, admitted that Mr Chavez's condition had worsened.
"The president has faced complications as a result of a severe respiratory infection. This infection has led to respiratory deficiency that requires Commandante Chavez to remain in strict compliance with his medical treatment," said Ernesto Villegas, the information minister.
Close aides and relations have flown to Havana for what some have interpreted as a final goodbye to Mr Chavez (58) who has dominated Venezuela for 14 years.
Mr Chavez, who has previously acknowledged he was suffering from cancer and endured several rounds of treatment, is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Thursday.
Exactly what would happen if Mr Chavez is still in hospital when inauguration day arrives is unclear. Under Venezuela's constitution, if the president dies or is "permanently incapacitated", new elections must be held within 30 days. In the meantime, the president of the national assembly should take over as interim ruler.
But Mr Chavez's aides claim there is still time for him to recover – and they are are understood to be urging a postponement of the inauguration.
The opposition say this would be unconstitutional: it wants independent medical experts to be sent to Havana to assess the president's health.
Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, won 44pc of the vote in last October's presidential election, the best showing that any opponent of Mr Chavez has achieved. (© Daily Telegraph, London)