Photos of Hugo Chavez shown after 2-month absence
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- 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 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 spurred rampant speculation in Venezuela. Government officials say Chavez has been recovering in Cuba since undergoing cancer surgery on Dec. 11.
The four photos show Chavez reclining on what appears to be a bed, a blue pillow behind his head. He smiles broadly, while his daughters Rosa and Maria lean in close to him.
Three of the images show Chavez looking at Thursday's issue of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, his daughters still flanking him. Chavez's son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, showed the photos on Venezuelan state television.
Speculation has been widespread in Venezuela about Chavez's condition, with the president not publicly seen or heard from since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10. During previous treatments in Havana, Chavez spoke on Venezuelan 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, reading from a statement on television.
Villegas reiterated that Chavez has overcome a respiratory infection that arose after the surgery, "although a certain grade 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, and have asked why he hasn't spoken to the nation to explain his condition.
Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the Colombian League Against Cancer in Bogota, said that based on the government's accounts, Chavez appears to have been breathing with the help of a respirator for an extended period after the surgery.
"After some days, it's mandatory to perform a tracheotomy so that he can breathe," Castro said.
Castro, who isn't involved in the president's treatment, said Chavez's tracheotomy isn't visible in the photos because it apparently is covered by his clothing, below the neck line of his zipped-up track suit. As for why Chavez needed the procedure, Castro said that when a patient is on a respirator for a long time, the "tube can damage the trachea because it, let's say, irritates. And they carry out the tracheotomy so that he can continue breathing without problems and preserve the trachea."
Castro also said that it's normal for a patient's face to swell up after being on a ventilator for a long time, though he also speculated the puffiness could be due to medications Chavez has been taking. Earlier on in his treatments, Chavez had acknowledged taking steroids, which can lead to swelling.
"They're not telling us anything about his `fundamental illness,"' Castro said. "They don't touch that subject. So, the question is: What's happened with the cancer?"
In a downtown Caracas plaza, some cheered and clapped Friday as they watched the government broadcast replayed on a television under a tent where the president's supporters regularly gather.
"I have prayed like you wouldn't believe for the health of our commander president," gushed Luisa Rodriguez, saying the pictures filled her with joy.
Before leaving for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged there were risks and said that if his cancer fight prevented him from staying on as president, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should run in a new election to take his place.
Maduro has traveled repeatedly to Havana in recent weeks, and has shown documents he said were signed by Chavez while insisting the president remains in charge. On Wednesday, Maduro said Chavez is undergoing "extremely complex and tough" treatments, which he didn't specify.
Arreaza on Friday described them as "palliative treatments" but didn't give details. He said Chavez has been keeping up his spirits with "llanera" folk music playing in his room.
"He's a fighter," Arreaza said in a televised interview.
Medical experts consulted by The Associated Press have said the government's recent accounts of "systemic medical treatment" could mean various kinds of chemotherapy or drug treatments, depending on the type of cancer.
The 58-year-old president has been undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba on-and-off since June 2011. He has said he has had tumors removed from his pelvic region, and has also undergone prior rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Throughout the treatments, Chavez has not revealed the type of cancer or the location where tumors have been removed.
Villegas urged Venezuelans to keep praying for Chavez.
"We trust... that Comandante Chavez will overcome these delicate circumstances sooner rather than later to accompany his nation in the path to new victories," Villegas said, finishing the statement saying: "Viva Chavez!"
The government provided the update a day after students began protesting outside the Cuban Embassy demanding the president appear and accusing the island's leaders of wielding undue influence in Venezuela's affairs.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Friday that he hopes the president recovers, but insisted the government stop misleading people about Chavez's illness.
"There are some government leaders who weren't elected and who appear every day on television with a different story," Capriles told reporters. In a message on Twitter, Capriles noted that "several days ago the liars said they spoke with him. ... Now, they say he can't speak. They're deceiving their own people!"
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