CARACAS Venezuela published the first photos of cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez since his surgery in Havana more than two months ago, and said the socialist president was breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.
The two pictures showed the 58-year-old, his face looking swollen but smiling, lying down in a hospital bed and flanked by his two daughters. In one, they were reading Thursday's edition of the Cuban state newspaper Granma.
The photos were shown on Friday by Chavez's son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, who has been traveling between Havana and Caracas to be at his bedside.
He said that Chavez - whose political identity is built around long-winded speeches, meandering talk shows and casual chatter with supporters - was having trouble talking.
"He doesn't have his usual voice," Arreaza told Venezuelan state television. "He has difficulty communicating verbally, but he makes himself understood. He communicates his decisions perfectly. He writes them down."
Chavez has not appeared in public, and has still not been heard from, since the operation on December 11, his fourth surgery for a cancer in his pelvic region first diagnosed in mid-2011.
Neither the pictures nor the new details on his condition offer solid clues as to when he might be able to return home, or whether the disease will force him to step down.
Allies appear content to let Chavez continue governing silently from Havana indefinitely, and bristle when asked about how the long the unusual arrangement could last.
The former soldier has never disclosed what type of cancer he has been treated for, and in his absence critics have accused government officials of secrecy over his condition.
"A few days ago the liars said they were speaking with the president. Now they say he can't talk!" opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Twitter. "They are playing around with their own people."
Chavez was re-elected for a new six-year term in October after appearing to have staged a remarkable recovery from the disease following three earlier operations and weeks of grueling chemotherapy and radiation sessions.
But he soon had to fly back to Cuba for more medical tests, then another round of complex surgery. He was too ill to return to Venezuela for his inauguration ceremony last month.
The government, which said the new photos were taken on Thursday night, added that he has respiratory problems.
"The post-operative respiratory infection was controlled, but there is still some insufficiency," it said in its latest official communique on the president's health.
"Under these circumstances, which are being treated, the commander is currently breathing through a tracheal tube."
On Wednesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro - Chavez's preferred successor - said his boss was undergoing "tough" and "complex" alternative treatments, but did not give details.
If Chavez died or had to step aside, the authorities would have to call a new vote within 30 days. That would likely pit Maduro against Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, who lost to Chavez in last October's election.
The president's singular brand of oil-fueled welfare spending and folksy charisma has won him an almost religious following among many poor Venezuelans. Many supporters reacted to the new images with joy, tweeting: "Chavez lives and smiles!"
Critics say his typically combative approach, harsh criticism of Washington and radical leftist policies including widespread nationalizations have crippled the economy and scared away foreign investors.
Perhaps more than anything, the normally loquacious leader's silence since the surgery has convinced many Venezuelans that his extraordinary 14 years in power could be coming to an end.
Arreaza, however, described a light-hearted mood around the president, who he said enjoyed receiving visitors in his hospital room where he listened to music from his rural boyhood home in Venezuela's central plains.
"It's a party," Arreaza told state TV.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Vicki Allen)