Venezuela’s government showed the first photos of President Hugo Chavez in more than two months, as pressure builds to obtain more information about the leader’s battle with cancer in a Cuban hospital.
In one photo, a smiling Chavez is propped up on a pillow, his face puffy and flushed, reading yesterday’s copy of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma in the company of his daughters Rosa and Maria.
The photos were released as the government struggles to manage the aftermath of a 32 percent currency devaluation that went into effect this week. A group of students opposed to the government were jailed yesterday after trying to chain themselves to the gates of the Cuban embassy in Caracas to demand a truthful account of Chavez’s illness, which has plunged Venezuela into a period of uncertainty.
“This is the first step in knowing what the president’s real condition is,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. “The Chavistas are tired of waiting for honest information about the president’s health.”
At the same time it released the four photos, the government provided new details about the president’s health.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said Chavez continues to suffer from a “delicate” respiratory infection that has left him speechless and breathing through a tracheal tube. Instead, the 58-year-old former paratrooper communicates with his cabinet by writing, and was responsible for determining the final details of last week’s devaluation of the bolivar, said Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, who is Chavez’s son-in-law.
“He has trouble communicating normally, but we understand him perfectly,” Arreaza said. “We hope we’ll be able to hear him again. He hasn’t lost his voice permanently.”
In contrast to the periods following past treatments, Chavez hadn’t been seen or heard from since traveling to Cuba on Dec. 10 for his fourth surgery in 20 months. That’s fueled speculation that his health is worse than the government is letting on and that he may be forced to step down, a move that would trigger an election.
Chavez may be using the tracheal tube to breathe more comfortably than with a machine and avoid damage to his upper airway or because the airway is damaged and a tube would allow him to “bypass the place where the windpipe is narrowed or blocked off,” Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University in Washington, said in a phone interview. Pishvaian has not treated Chavez or been given more information than what is publicly available.
“If the tube is hooked up to a machine, he cannot speak. If the tube is in place but he’s not dependent on the machine, they can put in a special kind of tube that allows him to speak,” Pishvaian said.
The government statement didn’t say whether Chavez is using the tracheal tube with a breathing machine. If Chavez continues to use a machine, that would mean his lungs have not recovered, and he may never become independent of it, Pishvaian said.
During Chavez’s prolonged absence, the government has tried to project an image of stability, with Vice President Nicolas Maduro saying in December that Chavez was walking and exercising.
The photos and comments today indicate that the president’s recovery is slow-going, confirming the outlook shaped by vague health updates provided by the government and reports by newspaper columnists, said Saul Cabrera, vice president of Caracas-based polling company Consultores 21.
“The fact that he’s prostrate and not even sitting up, yet alone standing, shows that he remains severely limited physically,” said Cabrera in a telephone interview.
The government hasn’t disclosed what type of cancer Chavez is suffering from. Before leaving for Havana for his last round of treatment, Chavez threw his “irrevocable, absolute” support behind Maduro should his illness prevent him from carrying out another six-year term.
Venezuela’s dollar bonds have returned 3.6 percent this year, and 35 percent in the past 12 months, as investors bet that any post-Chavez government would retreat from policies that over the past decade curtailed output in South America’s largest oil producer.
The yield on the benchmark dollar bonds due 2027 fell three basis points to 8.93 percent at 3:30 p.m. in New York, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The opposition rushed to criticize the government for allegedly misleading Venezuelans.
“A few days ago the liars said they were speaking with the president and now they say he can’t speak,” Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October’s election, wrote on Twitter. “They keep thinking the people are fools.”
Maduro, who spoke on state television today at a political rally in Bolivar state, condemned the comments made by Capriles and the student protest outside the Cuban embassy in Caracas.
“Chavez’s smile enrages them,” said Maduro. “We’ll hold Capriles responsible for any violence caused by that neo-fascist group at the embassy. The police acted because they had to act. You can’t attack our beloved Cuba.”
In Caracas, Jhonny Herrera said he was happy to see the president overcoming his illness.
“We Venezuelans believe what we see, not what we’re told,” said Herrera, a 39-year-old chef who said he’s neither a supporter of the government or the opposition. “They should have done this from the beginning to have more credibility with the people.”