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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela on Friday released what the government says are the first photos of President Hugo Chavez since he underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana back in December.
For many, the images mean the first proof of life of Chavez after two months of silence from the usually garrulous president.
Pictures showing the convalescing 58-year-old alongside his two daughters in a Havana hospital bed aired on state television.
Authorities said the shots were taken Thursday by Chavez's son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, following protests over a lack of information.
"After two months of a complicated postoperative process, the patient remains conscious with his intellectual functions intact,” said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, adding that Chavez was in close communication with his cabinet.
Villegas also added that Chavez was using a breathing tube, making it difficult to speak. That, he said, explains the lack of televised phone calls once common during Chavez's recovery.
Last year, Chavez claimed to be cancer-free while campaigning for re-election, which he won handily in October.
One month later, he took a surprise trip back to Cuba for treatment his government said would help speed along his recovery. He returned to Caracas, jubilant as ever.
Then, on Dec. 11, Chavez rushed back to Cuba for surgery. The president has not been seen or heard in public since.
The government has been tight-lipped on the president's well-being, offering snippets of information though they are often vague and contradictory about his recovery from an unspecified form of cancer in his pelvic area.
After the six-hour surgery, officials said Chavez suffered complications including a pulmonary infection and unexpected bleeding. Officials followed that with claims he was showing positive signs of improvement, that he faced the worst uphill battle yet, or that he was undergoing physical therapy and was expected back in Venezuela soon.
Earlier this week, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor and vice president, revealed that "el Comandante" was receiving alternative treatments — “complex and difficult treatments,” he said, “that at some point must end this cycle of illness.”
Meanwhile, media speculation — and mishaps — have run rampant.
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During his absence, Chavez has missed local elections, and even his own inauguration and State of the Union address. Maduro has filled in alongside other top cabinet members.
Officials have insisted that Chavez has continued to govern, though this seems unlikely given his inability to speak.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, looks set to take the helm of the world’s largest oil reserves should elections take place. Many analysts are expecting elections soon, in which Maduro is likely to be pitted against Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition leader who failed to beat Chavez in October’s presidential elections.
Capriles has not yet made any statements though outspoken opposition figure Maria Corina Machado tweeted: “Today demonstrates that we were right to ask for compliance with the Constitution, and declare the lack of a president.”
Corina has questioned the legality of Chavez’s continued presidency, notably after he failed to turn up at his own inauguration on Jan. 10.
The waiting in Venezuela for news of whether Chavez will ever again return to the presidency continues.