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First photos of ailing Chavez released amid lengthy absence

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
February 22, 2013 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
A photo from Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas' Twitter account shows Hugo Chavez and his daughters.
A photo from Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas' Twitter account shows Hugo Chavez and his daughters.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Venezuelan president is having difficulty speaking because of a tracheal tube
  • Hugo Chavez is shown smiling in some photos, reading a newspaper
  • Leader has been undergoing treatment after cancer surgery
  • He hasn't appeared in public since going to Cuba for surgery in December

(CNN) -- Venezuelans got the first glimpse in more than two months of their ailing president Friday in a series of photos the government released in a televised announcement.

In the photos, Hugo Chavez is lying on a blue pillow, flanked by his two daughters, while he reads the Cuban official newspaper Granma.

He is smiling, and his face looks a little swollen.

In the weeks since having cancer surgery on December 11, officials have been criticized for giving vague, sometimes contradicting updates on the president's health. Chavez, who has shown his strength after past surgeries by calling in to speak on state television, uncharacteristically has not been heard from or seen.

Chavez is temporarily having difficulty speaking after doctors inserted a tracheal tube, Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said.

"Two months after a complicated post-surgery period, the patient remains conscious, fully intellectually aware, in thorough communication with his governing team and on top of the fundamental duties of his post," Villegas said.

A respiratory infection that the president suffered has been controlled, but he still has some "insufficiency" in his breathing, Villegas said.

The photos were taken Thursday evening at the Cuban hospital where Chavez is being treated, the minister said.

Chavez's allies maintain that he's running his country from Havana, while critics say that the country is in limbo without a leader. Chavez's lengthy absence from Venezuela hasn't stopped his government from making some significant changes.

This week, the country devalued its currency, creating fear among some Venezuelans that the move would mean a sharp spike in the cost of imported goods. The decision came straight from Chavez, officials said.

Speaking to the Telesur network, Venezuela's minister of science, technology and innovation, Jorge Arreaza, said Chavez is able to communicate even if he has some difficulty speaking.

"He can communicate," Arreaza said. "He writes, he can be understood. It's not the voice he is known for, but he can communicate."

Chavez's voice difficulties are "reversible," he said.

Health problems prevented Chavez from coming to Caracas for an inauguration ceremony on January 10. While political opponents said that postponing the inauguration was unconstitutional, Venezuela's Supreme Court sided with Chavez's party, which had argued that the president did not need to be present at his swearing-in for his next term to begin.

Instead of a traditional inauguration ceremony, throngs of supporters in Caracas swore an oath of loyalty in Chavez's absence. Many waved flags and carried photos of the ailing president.

On Friday, Villegas said he was confident that Chavez would return to Venezuela sooner, rather than later.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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