UPDATE 2-Venezuela's Chavez still suffers breathing trouble

Andrew Cawthorne

* Official communique paints somber picture of Chavez health

* Unseen in Caracas military hospital after return from Cuba

* Venezuelans debate future of his 14-year socialist rule

(Adds details, background)

CARACAS, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Venezuela's cancer-stricken

president, Hugo Chavez, is still suffering respiratory problems

after surgery in Cuba two months ago, the government said on

Thursday in a somber first communique since his homecoming this


Struggling to talk and breathing through a tracheal tube,

the 58-year-old socialist leader is being treated at a Caracas

military hospital after returning unseen before dawn on Monday.

Long accustomed to the drama and speculation over Chavez's

health since cancer was first detected in June 2011, Venezuelans

are now debating if he can recover and return to active rule, or

may resign and try to ensure his vice president wins a vote.

Some think he may have simply come home to die.

"The breathing insufficiency that emerged post-operation

persists, and the tendency has not been favorable, so it is

still being treated," read the communique, in gloomy news for

Chavez's millions of passionate supporters.

The short statement, read by Information Minister Ernesto

Villegas, said, however, that treatment for Chavez's "base

illness" - presumably the cancer first diagnosed in his pelvic

area - continued without "significant adverse effects for now."


Little detailed medical information has been made public on

Chavez's condition, meaning the government's occasional short

statements are pored over by Venezuelans for clues about the

future for him and the nation he has dominated since 1999.

Chavez is believed to be seeing only close family at the

hospital and a few senior officials, including Vice President

Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello.

"The patient remains in communication with relatives and the

government political group in close collaboration with the

medical team," the statement added.

"The president holds firm to Christ, with absolute will to

live and maximum discipline in the treatment of his health."

Apart from a few photos of him lying in a Havana hospital

bed that were released by the government last week, Chavez has

not been seen or heard from in public since his Dec. 11

operation, his fourth surgery for cancer in just 18 months.

He returned home at 2:30 a.m. local time (0700 GMT) on

Monday without any of the fanfare or media attention that

accompanied previous homecomings after treatment in Cuba.

A source at the military hospital said there was tight

security surrounding Chavez's ninth-floor suite, and that the

only doctors treating the president there were Cubans.

Staircases were sealed off with bars, the source said, and

the area was covered by armed patrols and surveillance cameras.

Chavez originally chose to be treated in Cuba - where he has

spent more than five months in total since mid-2011 - due to his

friendship with leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, plus the

discretion guaranteed on the tightly controlled island.

But in recent weeks, officials said, he had been pining to

come home and listening to music from the his boyhood home in

the "llanos" or plains in central Venezuela.

Vigils are being held across the nation, while politicians

are quietly gearing up for a possible new presidential election.

Should Chavez leave power, a vote would have to be held

within 30 days. His No. 2, Maduro, would likely run against

opposition leader and state governor Henrique Capriles, who lost

to Chavez in last year's presidential election.

(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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