Supporters and opponents await news of Venezuela's ailing President Chavez
As their colourful president lies gravely ill in a Havana hospital, his supporters wonder when he will return to resume office - if at all
The change of mood in Plaza Bolivar could hardly be more dramatic. Less than three months ago jubilant crowds filled the main square in Caracas to celebrate another election triumph for Hugo Chavez with chants of " Oo, ah, Chavez no se va [Chavez won't go]".
On Friday night, however, supporters waited anxiously for any scrap of news from Havana, Cuba, where their president was fighting for his life in hospital after emergency cancer surgery.
"We have no idea what to expect. I pray for his recovery but I am expecting the worst," said Joaquin Cavarcas, as he scanned a newspaper for an update .
On Thursday, Chavez is due to be inaugurated for a further six-year term at a ceremony at the National Assembly, a short walk from the plaza. But the usually gregarious, publicity-loving president has not been seen nor heard since his operation on December 11, prompting speculation he will not recover in time.
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro said Chavez's formal swearing-in could be postponed if he was unable to attend, the clearest indication yet that the government was preparing to delay the ceremony while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or calling a new election in the South American Opec nation.
"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions," Maduro said, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV.
"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in co-ordination with the head of state."
Maduro's position generated new friction with the opposition, which has argued that if Chavez doesn't make it back to Caracas by Thursday, the president of the National Assembly - Diosdado Cabello - should be named interim president.
Such brewing disagreements were likely to be aired yesterday when the congress, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority, convenes to choose its president and other legislative leaders. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could potentially end up being the country's interim president if Chavez's illness forces him from office.
The government said on Thursday that the president was suffering from complications brought on by a severe lung infection after surgery. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, said it was painful to see his close political ally in this state. "The situation for our brother Hugo Chavez is very worrying," he said.
On the streets, nobody is giving up on Chavez, but there is a growing resignation that he will not attend his swearing-in as scheduled.
"We must wait for him to recover and then swear him into office," said Ruben Daza, a newspaper vendor. "I doubt he'll be back next week. The assembly will have to decide what to do, but he is the president and we must wait for his return."
Posters hanging from street lamps show Chavez alongside his daughter pointing down on a sea of supporters with a caption: "Now, more than ever, we are with Chavez."
For many of his supporters, it is unimaginable that anyone could fully replace Chavez, who has dominated the nation's politics for 14 years. But even if their worst fears are realised, they say, Chavez's legacy will endure.
"I want President Chavez to come back, I've prayed for his health from the beginning, but at this point I've lost all hope. I think the president of the assembly should take over and call for elections in the next 90 days, as the constitution says," said Sixto Zambrano, a retired soldier.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press