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First pictures emerge of Venezuela’s ailing Hugo Chávez

After being off the radar for more than two months, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez reappeared, posing in a series of Valentine’s Day snapshots in Cuba that sent his supporters to the streets and ramped up opposition criticism of the government’s secrecy.

The administration released four pictures of the cancer-stricken comandante Friday and said he’s conscious and alert but having trouble speaking because of a tracheal tube that is assisting his breathing. It was the first view that Venezuelans have had of the president since he was shown boarding the presidential aircraft Dec. 10 headed for cancer surgery in Havana.

The news that Chávez — who just a few months ago gave a nine-hour speech and is known for his verbosity — has been muted riled passions in Venezuela.

“Just a few days ago those liars said they were talking to the president,” Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles wrote on Twitter. “Now they say that he can’t even speak. They are making a mockery of their own people.”

In previous weeks, officials had described Chávez, 58, as laughing and cracking jokes from his hospital bed in Cuba, where he’s recovering from a fourth-round of cancer surgery. Despite the upbeat reports, the president has not called into radio shows, as he’s done in the past, and hasn’t made any appearances.

The government said the pictures were taken Thursday, as Chávez’s two daughters visited him for Valentine’s Day. In the photographs, he’s shown wearing a blue and white tracksuit and reading Cuba’s Granma newspaper. His face looks full and he’s smiling. There’s no sign of the tracheal tube.

Jorge Arreaza, Chávez’s son-in-law and minister of science and technology, described the bedside meetings with the president.

“When you’re there, you have to pay attention, but he can communicate his decisions perfectly well; sometimes he writes things down,” Arreaza told VTV television Friday. “He doesn’t have the voice that he’s known for, but this process is reversible and we hope to hear him again.”

Arreaza also blamed the opposition, unscrupulous doctors and “foreign intelligence” agencies for the rumors that have been swirling around the president’s health. Amid a dearth of official information, social networks and websites have been abuzz with reports that Chávez was unconscious, on life support or even dead.

Reading a statement Friday, Information Minster Ernesto Villegas said Chávez had overcome a post-operative respiratory infection, which had been previously announced. But he said lingering problems required the tracheal tube, “which makes it difficult for him to speak for the moment.”

In December, Spain’s ABC newspaper said Chávez had undergone a tracheotomy, but the administration had denied the report.

The pictures sent followers to the streets of Caracas. The Telesur network showed groups of red-clad supporters waving printed copies of the pictures. The images also spawned a rush of spoofs, showing Chávez reading Justin Bieber’s biography, the Kama Sutra and other works.

Despite his prolonged absence, the administration insists he’s in charge. Last week they said Chávez had called for a 46.5 percent currency devaluation — an unpopular move that increases the prices of many goods in import-reliant Venezuela. Administration officials also described him poring over satellite imagery looking for underused plots of land.

The opposition has questioned those claims, and demanded that the president step down. If Chávez were to resign or die, it would trigger new elections within 30 days.

Chávez, who won an additional six-year term in October, has been battling cancer since at least June 2011 and has relapsed twice. The administration has never said what type of cancer he has or what organs it may be affecting, only saying that it is located in his pelvic region. The latest round of surgery has been plagued with problems, including infections and internal bleeding.

The administration also gave a progress report earlier this week. Vice President Nicolás Maduro said on television that Chávez was undergoing “complementary treatments, extremely complex and tough treatments.”

But, he said, they should “at some point begin to close this cycle of treatment for his disease.”

Before heading to Havana, the president called on the nation to rally behind Maduro if new elections were required.

But the administration has never acknowledged that he might not be coming back.

“We have faith, along with the people of Venezuela and the rest of the world, that Commander Chávez will overcome these delicate circumstances sooner rather than later,” Villegas read from the statement, “and join his country on the path to new victories.”