Images of a smiling, but bedridden Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — the first direct proof of life after an almost 10-week absence — cheered supporters of the cancer-stricken leader.
However, analysts say the pictures have not settled the fundamental question that has kept Venezuela on edge since Chavez’s fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana on Dec. 11 last year: Is he fit to govern?
“The political uncertainty continues,” said sociologist Ignacio Avalos, a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
“Although the photographs bring calm to some Venezuelans, principally Chavez’s supporters, they are not a convincing element that points to the president’s recovery and that he is capable of resuming his duties,” Avalos said.
The Venezuelan government on Friday showed four still photographs of a smiling Chavez in his Havana hospital bed.
His two eldest daughters, Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela, are at his side, and he is depicted reading Thursday’s edition of the Cuban newspaper Granma in two of the pictures, providing a way to date the images.
His son-in-law, Venezuelan Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, who presented the photographs on state television, said that Chavez breathes through a tube inserted in his trachea, which makes it difficult for him to talk.
The tube is not visible in the pictures. Chavez wears a white baseball-type jacket that goes up to his neck, possibly covering it.
The reactions from his followers were immediate. On Twitter, the hashtag #ChavezViveySonrie — ChavezLivesandSmiles — was one of the most popular of the day, and in the streets his supporters waved copies of the images.
“He’s alive, he’s alive! Thanks be to God and to the whole world. This is proof,” said Dora Salcedo, 67, one of dozens of Chavez fans who gathered in downtown Caracas after the photographs came out.
“Wow! For a dead man you look really good, comandante,” tweeted @mormaldonado.
Venezuelans, accustomed to saturation coverage of Chavez during most of his 14 years in power, had not seen a current photograph or television image of their president since he left for Havana more than two months ago.
With only sketchy official accounts of his condition, rumors have proliferated over the true state of his health, with many believing he was dead or dying — even as the government claimed he was taking decisions and signing decrees.
The new images “have lowered the level of anxiety,” political analyst Farith Fraija said.
“Moreover, they are a way of showing that the president is taking government actions, even if communication is a bit difficult for him,” Fraija added.
However, reactions to the pictures are as polarized as Venezuelan society, Avalos said.
“The ‘Chavistas’ say ‘the president is not as bad as they have been saying,’ and the opposition speaks of a ‘montage,’” suggesting the photographs might have been doctored, he said.
Chavez opponents, Avalos said, also “emphasize his inability to speak.”
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Friday accused the government of “lying” about Chavez’s health, noting that just days ago officials had said he could talk and “now they say he can’t.”
Arreaza said the president has “difficulty communicating verbally,” but “communicates his decisions perfectly” in writing.
At the same time, Arreaza warned that it is “a slow recovery, a process that involves very difficult treatment which could have adverse reactions.”
Chavez is “a good ways” from a full recovery, he said, without venturing a date for the president’s return to Venezuela.
Chavez was easily re-elected to a six-year term in October last year, but was too sick to make to his Jan. 10 inauguration, which has been indefinitely postponed.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Chavez to succeed him if he is incapacitated, is in charge of running the government day to day.
“On one hand, there are the photographs of Chavez and the possibility that he returns — or doesn’t — to the helm,” Avalos said.
“On the other, one sees Vice President Maduro in the midst of what is more or less an election campaign,” he said.
“He inaugurates public works, speaks on television, and that points to a campaign to position someone who was not so visible before,” Avalos added.