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CARACAS: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s supporters joyfully brandished first photographs of him since cancer surgery two months ago while opposition activists said the images were worrying evidence of Venezuela’s political vacuum.
In a first proof of life since his six-hour operation in Cuba on December 11, authorities published four photos on Friday showing Chavez lying in a hospital bed smiling next to his daughters.
Underlining the gravity of his situation, however, an accompanying statement said the 58-year-old socialist leader was breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.
Within hours, the photos were on sale in Caracas streets, where some of Chavez’s passionate supporters clutched them to their hearts as if they were a
“It doesn’t matter that he can’t talk. We understood his message,” said Aniluz Serrano, 57, selling prints in colonial Bolivar Square, named for Venezuela’s independence hero and Chavez’s idol, Simon Bolivar.
“When I saw this photo, I thought how beautiful, here he is calling on the people to keep fighting. When I see this smile, I can see Christ, I can see Simon Bolivar.”
The photos and new medical details confirmed what most Venezuelans already assumed — that Chavez is seriously ill and may not be able to return to the presidency.
He has ruled the South American Opec nation since 1999, maintaining huge popularity among the poor thanks to oil-financed welfare policies and his common touch, while alienating private business with nationalisations and taking an authoritarian line on opponents.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other allies say Chavez remains the head of state, signing decrees and giving instructions sometimes in writing — from Havana.
“President Chavez in full recovery,” was the headline of various state media. “He’s alive ... he will be back,” said Idan Sotto, 24, buying one of the photos in downtown Caracas.
Opposition politicians believe such optimism is misplaced, given Chavez’s obvious frailty, and are renewing demands for more detailed information on his condition and ability to rule.
Should he be formally declared unable to govern, an election would be called within 30 days, probably pitting Maduro against opposition leader and state governor Henrique Capriles.
Capriles lost an October presidential election, and the opposition coalition is struggling to remain united, with some pushing for a more militant approach to Chavez’s absence.