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Venezuela's Chavez still suffers breathing trouble

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (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 communiqué since his homecoming this week.

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 communiqué, 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."

SPECULATION AND SECRECY

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 December 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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