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Chavez pictures cheer supporters but questions remain

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez watch a TV as pictures of the ailing leader are shown, February 15, 2013
Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez look at a TV as pictures of the ailing leader are shown in Caracas on February 15, 2013. Images of a smiling but bedridden Chavez -- the first direct proof of life after an almost ten-week absence -- cheered

Images of a smiling but bedridden Hugo Chavez -- the first direct proof of life after an almost ten-week absence -- cheered supporters of the cancer-stricken Venezuelan president.

But analysts say the pictures haven't settled the fundamental question that has kept Venezuela on edge since Chavez's fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana December 11: Is he fit to govern?

"The political uncertainty continues," said sociologist Ignacio Avalos, a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.

"Although the photographs bring calm to some Venezuelans, principally Chavez's supporters, they are not a convincing element that points to the president's recovery and that he is capable of resuming his duties," he said.

The Venezuelan government on Friday showed four still photographs of a smiling Chavez in his Havana hospital bed.

His two eldest daughters, Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela, are at his side, and he is depicted reading Thursday's edition of the Cuban newspaper Granma in two of the pictures, providing a way to date the images.

His son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, who presented the photographs on state television, said Chavez breathes through a tube inserted in his trachea, which makes it difficult for him to talk.

The tube is not visible in the pictures. Chavez wears a white baseball-type jacket that goes up to his neck, possibly covering it.

The reactions from his followers were immediate. On Twitter, the hashtag #ChavezViveySonrie (ChavezLivesandSmiles) was one of the most popular of the day, and in the streets his supporters waved copies of the images.

"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.

"Wow! For a dead man you look really good, comandante," tweeted @mormaldonado.

Venezuelans, accustomed to saturation coverage of Chavez during most of his 14 years in power, had not seen a current photograph or television image of their president since he left for Havana more than two months ago.

With only sketchy official accounts of his condition, rumors have proliferated over the true state of his health, with many believing he was dead or dying -- even as the government claimed he was taking decisions and signing decrees.

The new images "have lowered the level of anxiety," said political analyst Farith Fraija. "Moreover, they are a way of showing that the president is taking government actions, even if communication is a bit difficult for him."

But reactions to the pictures are as polarized as Venezuelan society, said Avalos.

"The Chavistas say 'the president is not as bad as they have been saying,' and the opposition speaks of a 'montage'," suggesting the photos might have been doctored, he said. Chavez opponents, said Avalos, also "emphasize his inability to speak."

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Friday accused the government "lying" about Chavez's health, noting that just days ago officials had said he could talk and "now they say he can't."

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrate in Caracas on February 15, 2013
Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrate after pictures of the ailing leader surrounded by his daughters in havana where released to the public, in Caracas on February 15, 2013. Chavez was seen bed-ridden but smiling in photos.

Arreaza said the president has "difficulty communicating verbally," but "communicates his decisions perfectly" in writing.

At the same time, Arreaza warned that it is "a slow recovery, a process that involves very difficult treatment which could have adverse reactions."

Chavez is "a good ways" from a full recovery, he said, without venturing a date for the president's return to Venezuela.

Chavez was easily reelected to a six year term in October, but was too sick to make to his January 10 inauguration, which has been indefinitely postponed.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Chavez to succeed him if he is incapacitated, is in charge of running the government day to day.

"On one hand, there are the photographs of Chavez and the possibility that he returns -- or doesn't -- to the helm," said Avalos.

"On the other, one sees Vice President Maduro in the midst of what is more or less an election campaign," he said.

"He inaugurates public works, speaks on television, and that points to a campaign to position someone who was not so visible before."