Waiting for Hugo: Questions outside Chavez hospital

A huge banner of a smiling Hugo Chavez covers the top of the military hospital where the ailing president is recuperating, but Venezuelans await for the man himself to finally appear in the flesh.

Presidential guards with red berets now control who goes through the gate, while Chavez reportedly rests in a ninth-floor room he has stayed in since he returned last Monday from 10 weeks of cancer treatment in Cuba.

In recent days, the government, which has tightly managed information about his health, put up tall banners along the street of the hospital displaying images of the leftist leader and the words "Chavez lives and smiles."

But outside the Dr. Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital, people wonder: Is Chavez really in there? How sick is he and when will he finally re-appear?

"Some say he's getting better, others say he's getting worse, others say he's still in Cuba or dead," said Jose Acosta, 24, who works at the J.Kelly bakery across from the hospital.

"There are so many rumors, you don't know what to think," Acosta said, echoing a sentiment repeated by a half-dozen people interviewed outside the hospital.

A man wearing white medical garb with the printed word "radiology" walked into the shop but refused to talk about Chavez or the hospital, saying "I don't know anything."

On a wall, there was the image of a smiling but bedridden Chavez flanked by his two daughters, one of the only four pictures that the government released of the once omnipresent leader on February 15, when he was still in Cuba.

At the hospital's main entrance, a presidential guard officer refused to let an AFP reporter go through, saying the communications ministry decides if journalists can visit.

The mystery surrounding the president's health has cast doubt over the political future of a nation sitting on top of the world's biggest oil reserve.

In power for 14 years, Chavez was re-elected to a six-year term in October after declaring himself cancer-free.

But he abruptly returned to Cuba for a fourth round of surgery in December and named Vice President Nicolas Maduro his political heir.

His January 10 inauguration was postponed indefinitely, prompting the opposition to cry foul. Elections must be called within 30 days if the president is incapacitated, and the opposition met Sunday to prepare to name a unity candidate.

The government's last medical report on Thursday was gloomy, stating that Chavez still suffers from a respiratory problem he developed after his December 11 surgery and that the trend was not favorable.

Chavez announced his return on Twitter and has released letters, but the booming voice that captivates loyal followers and infuriates his foes has remained silent. He is breathing through a tube, hindering his speech.

Maduro, whose appearances have multiplied on state-run media, insists that Chavez remains in charge and even held a five-hour meeting with officials on Friday, communicating with them in writing and giving instructions.

But an opposition leader, National Assembly deputy Julio Borges, said Maduro was "lying."

"The same night, patients and relatives of patients who were in the military hospital gave us information that Nicolas Maduro arrived just one hour before his remarks," he said.

A former defense minister said last week that a floor of the hospital that was once used for high-ranking military officer was modified a year and a half ago to become "an exclusively presidential area."

Maria Mileno, 32, who sells traditional Venezuelan corn cakes called arepas from a street stand in front of the gates, said hospital workers who buy her food are divided over whether Chavez is there.

"We don't know if he's really in there," she said. A friend who works in radiology told her that a colleague took a chest X-ray of Chavez.

"As long as you don't see something, you can't confirm it," Mileno said, adding that there was slightly more security the last time Chavez was hospitalized there for chemotherapy in 2011, with snipers on rooftops.

While police were on street corners, there were no visible sharpshooters.

Mileno, like many lower-class Venezuelans, supports the ailing leader, who has become popular among the country's poor thanks to oil-funded social programs.

"Chavez is a leader who has earned the love of the people," she said. "He always thinks about the people."

Down the street, restaurant manager John Ochoa, 30, also said he has "to see to believe" but that life goes on despite the president's absence.

"Everything is stable," the Colombian immigrant said. "People work everyday, everything works normally."