Photos of smiling leader emerge amid long absence
CARACAS, Venezuela – The world got its first glimpse of Hugo Chavez since he underwent a fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba more than two months ago, with photos released Friday showing the Venezuelan leader smiling alongside his daughters in Havana.
Along with images of the puffy-faced Chavez came a government explanation for why no one has heard from the longtime president since his surgery: He’s breathing through a tracheal tube that makes speech difficult.
Chavez’s government described his condition as “delicate” and said he continues to undergo “vigorous treatment for his fundamental illness.”
The images and new details filled a vacuum of information about Chavez’s condition that has unleashed rampant speculation in Venezuela. Government officials say Chavez has been recovering in Cuba since his cancer surgery Dec. 11.
The four photos show Chavez reclining on what appears to be a bed. He smiles broadly, while his daughters Rosa and Maria lean in close to him.
Chavez hasn’t been seen publicly or heard from since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10. During previous treatments in Havana, he spoke on TV or appeared in photos.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Friday that the tracheal tube makes talking difficult for Chavez.
“After two months of a complicated post-operative process, the patient remains conscious, with his intellectual functions intact, in close communication with his government team,” Villegas said.
Villegas reiterated that Chavez has overcome a respiratory infection that arose after the surgery, “although a certain degree of (breathing) insufficiency persists.”
“Given that circumstance, which is being duly treated, Comandante Chavez is currently breathing through a tracheal cannula, which temporarily hinders speech,” Villegas said.
Villegas also said Chavez’s doctors are “applying vigorous treatment for his fundamental illness,” an apparent reference to cancer. He said that treatment “isn’t free of complications.”
Government opponents have been demanding more information about Chavez’s condition.
Dr. Jose Silva, a pulmonary specialist and president of the Venezuela Pulmonology Society, told the Associated Press that based on the government’s accounts, doctors must have performed a tracheotomy on Chavez, cutting an opening in his windpipe to facilitate breathing. He said he thinks Chavez is breathing with the help of a ventilator through a tube attached to his windpipe, and speculated the president’s track suit was zipped up to the neck to hide the tube.