Venezuela's government showed the first photos of ailing President Hugo Chavez in more than two months on Friday, presenting images of him smiling alongside his daughters while also acknowledging that he is in a "delicate" state fighting cancer.
Chavez is propped up on what appears to be a bed in the photos, a blue pillow behind his head. His face appears puffy, but he is smiling broadly, while his daughters Rosa and Maria lean in close to him.
In other images, Chavez is shown looking at Thursday's issue of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, his daughters still flanking him. The photos were shown on television by Chavez's son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza.
The government released the images amid widespread speculation and rumors in Venezuela about Chavez's condition following his Dec. 11 cancer surgery. Chavez hasn't been seen or directly heard from since he left for Cuba on Dec. 10, in contrast to previous stays for medical treatment in Havana.
The photos were shown on state television after Information Minister Ernesto Villegas released new details about Chavez's condition, including that he is breathing through a tracheal tube that makes it difficult for him to speak.
"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.
Opponents demand explanation
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.
Government opponents have been demanding more information about Chavez's condition, and have been asking why he hasn't spoken to the nation to explain his condition.
Villegas also said that 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."
Villegas said the Venezuelan government thanks Cuban leaders Raul and Fidel Castro "for the love and the care shown to our president." He urged Venezuelans to keep praying for Chavez, and also expressed hope.
"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!"
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 on television documents signed by Chavez while insisting the president remains in charge. On Wednesday, Maduro said that 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.
Medical experts consulted by The Associated Press have said the government's recent accounts of "systemic medical treatment" could mean various types 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 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.
Since December, the government has provided regular updates, though there have been fewer updates in recent weeks, and often with only vague descriptions of Chavez's condition.