, CARACAS, Feb 15 – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was seen bed-ridden but smiling in photos released on Friday that gave a jittery nation a first glimpse of him since his fourth round of cancer surgery in December.
The pictures show Chavez lying on his back in bed in a Havana hospital, with his two eldest daughters at his side and holding Thursday’s edition of the official Cuban communist party newspaper Granma.
The total of four images broke a virtual news blackout for Venezuelans living in a state of limbo without their once media-happy and larger than life comandante.
Until now they had not seen a single photo of him, nor heard his voice, with terse and sketchy government updates about Chavez’s health feeding conspiracy theories that he was dead. His absence has also enraged political opponents.
The last time the Venezuelan leader was seen was in his oil-rich homeland when he waved goodbye as he left Caracas airport on December 10 for Havana.
Latin American leaders have visited Cuba but none has said they saw Chavez. The government has not even said what kind of cancer Chavez has, where in his body it is or how serious it is.
On Thursday night, opposition leader Henrique Capriles repeated his charge that the government has probably been lying about Chavez’s condition, suggesting he was actually worse off than publicly stated.
Despite the photos, Venezuelans will apparently have to wait longer for the former commando to break his silence.
Chavez has been fitted with a breathing tube in his throat, making it hard for him to speak, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said.
That’s because of a respiratory infection that emerged after the surgery. The infection has been brought under control and is being treated, but “the underlying disease is not without complications,” Villegas said.
“Because of this, commander Chavez is breathing through a tracheal tube, which temporarily hinders his speech,” Villegas said in a televised speech to the nation.
It was Chavez’s son in law Jorge Arreaza, who is also science minister, who showed the printed photos of Chavez on television.
“We wanted to share with you now some shots from last night of our commander accompanied by his two daughters Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela … yesterday on the day of friendship, on Valentine’s Day,” Arreaza said.
The pictures are similar to each other, and show Chavez with the daughters, one on each side of him, looking through the Cuban newspaper. Chavez wears a white baseball-type jacket that goes up to his neck. The breathing tube is not visible. Chavez is lying back, his face puffy, but smiling, as are his daughters.
These pictures “put us at ease,” Arreaza said in a broadcast that all radio and TV stations were ordered to carry.
Although he has trouble talking, Chavez remains alert with all his mental faculties intact and is “in close collaboration with his government team and on top off all the issues” facing the government, Villegas said.
Capriles reacted to the photos with scorn. He said that while just a few days ago government officials who have been shuttling back and forth to Havana said they had spoken to the president “now they say he cannot speak. They are making a mockery of their own people,” Capriles wrote on Twitter.
Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and after surgery and treatment declared himself free of the disease and went on to win another term in office in elections last October.
But he suffered a relapse, and after the latest surgery he was still too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on January 10. So it has been postponed indefinitely, and Vice President Nicolas Maduro has essentially been running the country.
Opposition parties insist that Chavez’s term ended January 10 and if he cannot start a new one in person, he should be declared incapacitated and an interim president named pending the convening of another election.