Supporters of Hugo Chavez have displayed new confidence after the government released the first post-surgical photos of the ailing Venezuelan leader.
The pictures show the 58-year-old Chavez lying on his back in a Havana hospital and leafing through Thursday's edition of the official Cuban newspaper Granma.
Chavez supporters rejoiced at the confirmation that the president was alive.
The four images broke a virtual news blackout for Venezuelans who have been living in limbo without their media-happy comandante – a populist firebrand who is the most visible face of the Latin American left and who has irked the United States by aligning himself with Iran, Syria and Cuba.
For over two months Venezuelans had not seen a photo or TV image of Chavez, nor heard the voice of a man usually omnipresent across state media. Sketchy government updates about his health fueled speculation he was actually dead.
Chavez's absence has also enraged political opponents, who have wondered aloud who is running Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves.
He was last seen as he left Caracas airport on December 10 for treatment in Cuba.
On Thursday night, opposition leader Henrique Capriles kept up his assertion that the government has probably been lying about Chavez's health, suggesting the president is in worse shape than officials have said he is.
Capriles expressed fresh anger over of the release of the pictures and said they had not clarified the president's true health condition.
However the pro-Chavez camp was jubilant to see their hero, and could not resist a dig at the rumors simmering on social media that Chavez was no more.
"Wow! For a dead man you look really good, comandante," tweeted @mormaldonado.
"He's alive, he's alive! Thanks be to God and to the whole world. This is proof," said Dora Salcedo, 67, one of dozens of Chavez fans who gathered in downtown Caracas after the photos came out.
But Venezuelans apparently will have to wait longer for the former commando to break his silence.
He has been fitted with a breathing tube in his throat, making it hard for him to speak, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said.
'Put us at ease'
That's because of a respiratory infection that emerged after the surgery. The infection has been brought under control but "the underlying disease is not without complications," Villegas said in a televised speech to the nation.
It was Chavez's son in law Jorge Arreaza, also science minister, who showed the printed photos of Chavez on television.
"We wanted to share with you now some shots from last night of our commander accompanied by his two daughters Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela ... yesterday on the day of friendship, on Valentine's Day," Arreaza said.
A leading political analyst here said it was a savvy move by the government to publish the photos, even if Chavez appeared to be in a somewhat debilitated state.
"It was the right move politically," said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the firm Datanalisis.
The pictures are similar to each other, and show Chavez with the daughters, one on either side of him, looking through the Cuban newspaper. Chavez wears a white baseball-type jacket that goes up to his neck. The breathing tube is not visible, with the leader lying back, his face puffy, but smiling.
These pictures "put us at ease," Arreaza said in a broadcast that all radio and TV stations were ordered to carry.
Chavez remains alert with all his mental faculties intact and is "in close collaboration with his government team and on top off all the issues" facing the government, Villegas said.
But Capriles reacted with scorn. He said that while just a few days ago government officials who have been shuttling back and forth to Havana said they had spoken to Chavez "now they say he cannot speak. They are making a mockery of their own people," Capriles tweeted.
Chavez was first diagnosed with cancer in 2011. After surgery and treatment he declared himself free of the disease and went on to win another term in elections last October.
But he suffered a relapse, and after the latest surgery he was still too sick to come back to Venezuela for his scheduled inauguration on January 10. It has been postponed indefinitely, and Vice President Nicolas Maduro has essentially been running Venezuela.
Maduro used the occasion of the pictures' publication to accuse the opposition of "trying to confuse the public" and "destabilising" the country, with its strident criticism of the president's prolonged absence.
The government has never said where Chavez's cancer is located or how serious it was or is.
Opposition parties insist Chavez's term ended January 10 and that if he cannot start a new one in person, an interim president should be named pending a decision on whether Chavez should be declared incapacitated, in which case a new election would be called quickly. – Sapa-AFP