© Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters/Reuters
A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds a copy of a photograph of Chavez released by the Ministry of Information, during a gathering at Plaza Bolivar in Caracas February 15, 2013.
Caracas - President Hugo Chavez's supporters joyfully brandished first photographs of him since cancer surgery two months ago while opposition activists said the images were worrying evidence of Venezuela's political vacuum.
In a first proof of life since his six-hour operation in Cuba on December 11, authorities published four photos on Friday showing Chavez lying in a hospital bed smiling next to his daughters.
Underlining the gravity of his situation, however, an accompanying statement said the 58-year-old socialist leader was breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.
Within hours, the photos were on sale in Caracas streets, where some of Chavez's passionate supporters clutched them to their hearts as if they were a religious icon.
"It doesn't matter that he can't talk. We understood his message," said Aniluz Serrano, 57, selling prints in colonial Bolivar Square, named for Venezuela's independence hero and Chavez's idol, Simon Bolivar.
"When I saw this photo, I thought how beautiful, here he is calling on the people to keep fighting. When I see this smile, I can see Christ, I can see Simon Bolivar."