Caracas: New video footage released on Wednesday showed Hugo Chavez back to his chatty self in an encounter with Cuba`s Fidel Castro that may temper rumours Venezuela`s president is seriously ill.
There was still no word on when the charismatic but authoritarian socialist leader might return to the OPEC nation following surgery in Havana. Chavez`s absence has convulsed politics at home and spawned a frenzy of speculation over the future of his "revolution".
Unlike brief extracts shown before, Chavez was heard talking this time, discussing regional politics and stories in Tuesday`s edition of Cuban Communist Party daily Granma.
"Look how Fidel is reading, without spectacles. Me, too, though with a bit of trouble!" an animated-looking Chavez joked with his friend and mentor Castro, 84, after the pair strolled in a garden, presumed to be at Havana`s Cimeq hospital.
Chavez, 56, who has become one of the world`s best-known but controversial leaders during 12 years in power, disappeared from public view after surgery in Cuba on June 10.
The government says he is recovering fine after surgery to remove a pelvic abscess.
But his prolonged absence, and the relative silence of a man famous for hogging airwaves and giving hours-long speeches, spawned rumors he may have something worse like cancer.
Later in the new 20-minute video, the famously garrulous pair are seen sitting indoors, both dressed in tracksuits, having a detailed conversation about Latin American history.
Presenting the images on state TV, Chavez`s vice president, Elias Jaua, said they were proof his boss was on the road to recovery. "They have comforted the nation and lifted morale."
Chavez supporters immediately Tweeted their joy.
"Think of all the people now biting their tongues as they watch the images of President Chavez talking fine, with the same energy and passion as always," said Eva Golinger, an American lawyer close to the president.
The new images do not definitively disprove the most extreme rumor -- that Chavez has prostate cancer.
And they left plenty of questions unanswered: Why has Chavez still not addressed the nation? If his surgery was straightforward and successful, why is he still in Havana 19 days later? Who is running government?
The affair has highlighted the lack of an obvious successor for Chavez, who has utterly dominated Venezuelan politics while driving forward his "21st Century Socialism" reforms.
"Chavez`s absence has led, whether the government admits it or not, to an ongoing crisis of governance and to a vacuum of power," said Venezuelan analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos.
The focus now is on whether he will be back in Venezuela to host a regional summit planned for July 5. The meeting on Margarita island is timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the country`s independence from Spain.
Venezuela`s widely-traded debt had rallied this week as some on Wall Street viewed the possibility of a major health problem for Chavez as a positive development for markets.
His reappearance could reverse that, analysts said.
The saga had been threatening to turn the local political scene on its head before next year`s presidential election.
Were Chavez to be incapacitated, there would probably be a fight for power among his closest allies and the opposition might demand immediate elections, analysts said.
Given past violence, especially around a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez, the potential for more trouble always lurks in a nation brimming with arms and political bitterness.
Some Venezuelans think the president has deliberately let the rumors grow over the last two weeks so he can smoke out the opinions and positions of both allies and enemies alike, before making a triumphant return to the rejoicing of supporters.