CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuela and Cuba released new photographs and video footage of President Hugo Chavez yesterday in an effort to stop speculation the socialist leader was seriously ill after undergoing surgery in Havana.
The disappearance of the normally garrulous and TV-friendly 56-year-old from public view since the June 10 operation has convulsed the volatile and politically polarized South American OPEC member nation of 29 million people.
“Let these images serve to bring peace to the people of Venezuela regarding the health of President Chavez,” Venezuelan Communications Minister Andres Izarra said on state TV.
“To those of you who are speculating over the president’s health, there he is … fine, recovering well.”
The new images do not disprove the most extreme rumors — that Chavez has prostate cancer — but they give substance to the government’s insistence that he is simply recovering from a painful operation to remove an abscess from his pelvis.
In the images, which state TV said were recorded earlier on Tuesday, Chavez appeared in better condition — albeit still thinner than usual — than in the one set of pictures released shortly after the procedure.
Some analysts think Chavez has deliberately let the furor build over the last two weeks so he can return triumphant to the acclaim of his supporters in a political deus ex machina.
In the brief video footage and photos, he was seen sitting in a chair, apparently having an animated conversation with his friend and mentor Fidel Castro.
He was also seen walking outside in an open area with the former Cuban leader. Both men were wearing tracksuits and at one point they were seen pouring over articles in a newspaper.
The guessing game over Chavez’s health had taken new twists, with rumours ranging from a possible takeover push by his brother to a potential return by the end of this week.
Utterly dominant on the Venezuelan political stage since 1999, Chavez has put in place sweeping socialist reforms including the nationalization of large swathes of the economy in the continent’s biggest oil exporter.
He has said he will stand for
re-election next year. But some had been asking if he would make it to the vote.
BACK ON FRIDAY?
Beyond referring to the abscess, the government has given no more medical details of the operation nor a clear timetable for Chavez’s homecoming.
“This way of handling information is typical of totalitarian regimes,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado told Reuters.
Chavez allies say speculation is cynical and unfounded.
“We affirm the right of President Chavez to undergo his recovery and treatment in the established time,” Vice President Elias Jaua said on state TV after the pictures were released.
“President Chavez has not stopped working, exercising his constitutional authority … he just called us in a ministerial meeting,” Jaua said.
Should the president be incapacitated, under the constitution Jaua would in theory take over for the rest of his six-year period, ending in January 2013.