President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has not been seen in public for more than two weeks following an operation for pelvic swelling in Cuba. His absence has prompted widespread speculation about his health and his ability to govern, report special correspondents for The Times.
The Venezuelan and Cuban governments insist Chavez is OK and recovering at an undisclosed location. Cuba's Communist government released photos of President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro visiting Chavez in what appears to be a hospital room, but the Venezuelan leader has otherwise been absent from public view.
Chavez's Twitter has also largely been inactive since earlier this month, although on Friday a flurry of messages appeared. These made no mention of the president's health or location.
Speculation persists in the opposition news media over whether "Chavez has a life-threatening disease such as cancer, and even whether he is alive," The Times reports.
As Chavez's absence enters its 17th day, political opponents in Venezuela have ramped up criticism of the government's silence. The opposition is demanding Chavez delegate power to his vice president while he recovers. Relatives, including Chavez's mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, have asked that Venezuelans pray for his recovery (link in Spanish).
Chavez, who is 56, leads one of the world's biggest oil-producing nations and is an ardent antagonist of the United States. He hopes to be reelected in 2012 but faces rising domestic problems — including crime, inflation, and energy woes — that have hampered his ability to lead a leftist anti-U.S. bloc in the region at large.
Cuba is known to release photographs of the Castro brothers, ages 80 and 84 respectively, when public doubt rises over their health. In the past, such photos have come under scrutiny by bloggers, who have claimed they were faked. (The Chavez photos, in a medium resolution, are reproduced here.)
If Chavez remains in Cuba for "10 or 12 days" more, as his brother Adan Chavez said Sunday, and he does not delegate presidential powers, he will have governed Venezuela from afar for more than a month.
— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photo: Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and current President Raul Castro of Cuba, in a photo released on June 17, 2011. Credit: Government of Cuba