CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of Venezuelans held a candlelight vigil Friday for President Hugo Chavez, praying for their leader while he remained in a hospital undergoing cancer treatment.
Chavez's supporters gathered on a wide stairway in a hillside park near the presidential palace. They lit candles at sunset and sang along with a recording of a healthy Chavez belting out the national anthem.
Some wiped away tears. Others closed their eyes and prayed.
Some said they felt sad, yet still hopeful that Chavez might be able to survive.
"We're praying for the president, for him to get through all of this," said Ana Perez, a seamstress holding a candle and shielding her flame from the breeze with a piece of paper.
Her eyes filled with tears as she talked about Chavez. "There is no other president like this one. He's unique," she said, wiping a wet cheek.
"He's going to come out of all of this, and he's going to get better," Perez said. "He's survived many hard things. He's strong."
A group of indigenous people wearing colorful dresses, beads and feathers danced around a bonfire at the base of the stairs. One man blew on a conch shell, while others shook maracas as they danced around the flames.
Chavez hasn't been seen since he returned to Venezuela on Monday from Cuba, where for 10 weeks he was recovering and fighting complications following his latest cancer surgery Dec. 11.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Friday night that he and other officials had met with Chavez at the military hospital. Maduro said Chavez is continuing to undergo treatment for "respiratory insufficiency" and is breathing through a tracheal tube, which hinders speech.
"He communicated with us through various written ways to give us his guidance," Maduro said, speaking on television alongside other aides at the hospital. Maduro said Chavez was smiling and in an energetic mood, "with an immense strength of will."
He said they talked with Chavez in three sessions lasting about five hours. "We came out filled with his strength," Maduro said.
During the vigil, some in the crowd held photos of Chavez while a preacher spoke from a stage, saying: "The president is going to be healthy!"
Lissette Cordero, who stood holding a candle next to her 5-year-old son, said she's grateful to Chavez for creating government-funded neighborhood councils and inexpensive state-run food stores.
Her son, who also held a candle, looked up at the stage where the minister was speaking and asked, "Is that Chavez?"
"No," his mother replied with a smile.
"I have faith he's going to recover. It's hard," she added. "I love him."
The government has not given details about the treatment Chavez is undergoing, and hasn't identified the type or exact location of the tumors that have been removed from his pelvic region.
Venezuela's opposition has demanded the government provide more specific information about Chavez's condition, and has criticized a decision by lawmakers last month that indefinitely postponed his swearing-in ceremony for a new six-year term.
Two prominent Venezuelan jurists asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to determine whether Chavez is fit to remain in office. Former Supreme Court President Cecilia Sosa Gomez and professor Jose Vicente Haro called for the court to appoint a board of medical experts to determine whether Chavez is in physical and mental shape to remain president.
They argued that if Chavez is fit to be president, the court should proceed to hold a public swearing-in.
Government officials insist Chavez remains in charge and has been communicating with government officials about policy decisions and signing documents.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua read a lengthy letter from Chavez on Friday to a gathering of African and South American leaders in Equatorial Guinea.
In the letter, which ran for about 1,500 words, Chavez said he was sorry not to be able to attend the meeting. Chavez denounced Western military intervention in countries such as Libya in recent years, and called for more "South-South cooperation."
The letter ended with the words: "We will live and be triumphant!"
Prayer gatherings for Chavez this week have included a ceremony where indigenous shamans danced on Thursday, attended by Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu.
Menchu, who received the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, said she had come to Venezuela "as one of the Maya spiritual guides" with knowledge of medicinal traditions.
"I'm completely sure that President Hugo Chavez has received the cosmic energies. He has received the strength of our Mother Earth. ... He is going to overcome big obstacles," Menchu said Friday at a televised event where she spoke alongside Maduro.
As for Chavez, she said, "He has to have sufficient rest so that he can recover the strength of his vital energies as soon as possible."
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap
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