The Venezuelan communications minister, Andres Izarra, gushed with excitement: “We have tremendous news for the Venezuelan people.”
And then, starting Tuesday and repeatedly on Wednesday, state TV played footage of President Hugo Chavez spiritedly talking in Cuba with the man he has called his father figure, Fidel Castro.
That normally wouldn’t be news — Chavez governs like the host of a reality show, cameras always rolling as he presides over summits, hectors opponents and warns of diabolical American plots to unseat him.
But for an eternity in Venezuela, 16 full days, no one had publicly heard the voice of the man who has frequently commandeered the airwaves during 12 years in power. Venezuelans knew only that Chavez had undergone surgery June 10 after suffering abdominal pains during a meeting with Castro.
On June 12, Chavez told viewers of state TV in Venezuela that he was recovering. But public pronouncements by assorted Venezuelan officials since then — Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro on Friday said Chavez was in “a battle for life” — fueled speculation that Chavez’s condition was critical.
Then officials released the new footage, which aired first in Cuba and Venezuela and was then beamed across Latin America.
On a springlike Havana morning, Chavez greets Castro with his trademark “Fatherland or death, we will be victorious!” The two then stand and talk, the Venezuelan leader in his trademark windbreaker featuring the three colors of his country’s flag, the Cuban revolutionary in a red baseball cap.
The camera pans from Chavez’s feet to his head, almost as if to assure viewers that it is really him, a little thinner than usual, but El Comandante nonetheless.
The two men read two Cuban state newspapers, Castro holding Granma and Chavez reading Rebel Youth. Both men make it clear they are reading papers published Tuesday.
“What do I read to you from here?” Chavez asks Castro, holding up his paper. “Rebel Youth, Tuesday the 28th of June, 2011.”
Tania Diaz, a state TV host, said that the focus on the date was an effort to thwart naysayers, such as government foes who say Chavez’s prolonged absence should trigger a temporary transfer of power.
“They had in their hands today’s Granma, so they don’t later say these are old, edited images,” Diaz told viewers.
Using a newspaper to prove authenticity is a common practice in proof-of-life pictures issued by kidnappers in Latin America. In Uruguay, President Jose “Pepe” Mujica joked in a televised interview that Castro had taken Chavez hostage for his own good.
“Fidel practically kidnapped him,” Mujica, who is close to Chavez and Castro, said Tuesday night on Uruguayan television. “He didn’t let him go because he didn’t trust that he would seek treatment in Venezuela.”
The whole episode, particularly the Kremlin-like secrecy surrounding Chavez’s health, has left Venezuelans shaking their heads.
“This is not good for the country,” said Carlos Correa, director of Public Space, a Caracas think tank. “I don’t know what the benefits of this are.”
Humorist Gilberto Gonzalez said the videos from Havana had not convinced him.
“I want Chavez to send us a finger so we can make sure it’s him,” he quipped.
Noting Chavez’s rambling televised speeches, some of which have lasted seven hours, Gonzalez said he wants to know how it was that Cubans were able to keep the loquacious leader quiet for so long.
“They must have had him sedated,” Gonzalez said. “He talks on and on like a crazy parrot.”
Chavez’s followers and aides had a different take — they have been sick with worry.
Speaking to viewers Tuesday, Izarra, the communications minister, said Chavez looked dynamic in the videos. He also said he had been able to speak to him by phone.
“It made me very emotional to talk to him,” he said.