CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Sixty-seven days after Venezuelans last saw him, President Hugo Chavez reappeared on Friday when government officials televised photographs of him recuperating in Cuba with two of his daughters at his side.
The images were the first evidence that Chavez, who was last seen on Dec. 10 when he boarded a plane to Cuba for a fourth surgery to remove cancerous tissue, was alive and convalescing.
In the photos, Chavez smiles from a hospital bed while flanked by daughters Maria Gabriela and Rosa Virginia. They are pictured looking at Thursday's edition of Cuba's Communist Party newspaper, Granma, the images serving as a sort of proof of life to those who doubted that El Comandante remained alive.
The photographs have come as tensions have flared in Venezuela, with opposition leaders demanding to see evidence that Chavez has been recuperating, as his aides claimed.
Although Chavez had once held forth on television as if he were the host of a reality show, there has been nothing but silence since his December surgery. No photographs or video had been released. Chavez missed his Jan. 10 swearing in for a fourth term. He had also stopped posting on Twitter and making late-night phone calls to his favorite state TV interviewers.
For some people there, Venezuela has been in a sort of tropical twilight zone, with officials claiming that Chavez is involved in every intricate detail of governance.
"We're living in a fantasy world," said Aida Barreto, 56, who says that, like other ordinary Venezuelans, she's exasperated by the political uncertainty. "I think what they are telling us are lies, really."
Meanwhile, Venezuela is being buffeted by crises. In January, a prison riot left 58 dead, while sky-high inflation is eating into Venezuelans' earnings. Food shortages, a fact of life for years, grow worse, with everything from chicken to cooking oil, flour to toilet paper missing from many stores shelves. Topping it all off was a devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar by 32 percent.