Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez take
pictures of a copy of a photograph of Chavez released by
the Ministry of Information, during a gathering at Plaza
Bolivar in Caracas. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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
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
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 religious icon.
"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 nationalizations 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
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 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
"Venezuelan sovereignty is being given away to the Cuban
government," one of the most strident opposition leaders,
Maria Corina Machado, told Reuters in reaction to the photos.
"It is obvious the photos were to make the world believe Hugo
Chavez is in charge of government but what they've done is
precisely the opposite ... I'd like to ask a question to any
democratic citizen in the world: could you imagine a
situation in which you have 69 days with no word from your
As well as predictable political bickering, the photos
spawned a plethora of online scrutiny and theories.
Some hunted for evidence of image editing. Others simply
mocked the photos as the typical recourse of an autocratic
and secretive government trying to spin a dire situation.
"It's hard to see why reading the dreadfully boring Granma
would generate smiles," said columnist Andres Canizalez, in
an opposition newspaper, referring to the Cuban Communist
Party's daily newspaper that Chavez is clutching in the
About 20 students protested for a third day in front of the
Cuban Embassy in Caracas, standing in chains and holding
copies of the constitution as police stood on guard.
"What certainty do we have with these photos? We need an
independent medical board to go to Havana. It's our right as
Venezuelans to know what's happening," said one protester
Alexa Hauber, 25.
Many Venezuelans commented on the irony of the loss of
Chavez's voice given his famously garrulous and bombastic
rhetoric - from a thundering denunciation of then-U.S.
President George W. Bush as the "devil" at the United
Nations, to hours-long, meandering speeches that have been a
staple of political life at home.
Though it is impossible to predict what the next few months
may hold for Venezuela, all sides agree Chavez will leave a
lasting imprint on the country.
"Chavismo will probably last generations. It will not die,"
Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said, seeing a parallel
with 1950s populist Argentine leader Juan Peron whose memory
and ideology remain highly influential.
"The death of Peron was not the death of Peronism in