Caracas: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been out of sight for a week, speaking only through Twitter messages and written statements while undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba.
The lack of any appearances on television has Venezuelans wondering about what his unusual silence might say about his struggle with cancer, and whether Chavez may be coping with a particularly tough phase of radiation therapy.
More than 30 messages have appeared on Chavez`s Twitter account since he left for Cuba on April 14. He has cheered on supporters with slogans such as "Let`s continue building socialism!" In others, he has praised his military commanders, announced funding for local governments and vowed to survive and win re-election in October.
But he has seldom mentioned his cancer treatment.
National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello reiterated on Friday that Chavez is expected to return to Venezuela soon.
"God willing, next week he`ll be here again with us once he has finished the treatment," Cabello said in a televised speech. He insisted that even when Chavez is away in Cuba, "he leads just the same as if he were here in Venezuela”.
"The commander`s presence here isn`t necessary, because just the same he`s the commander of the revolution," Cabello said.
But even some of Chavez`s supporters have been saying recently that they wonder what`s going on with his health.
"It makes me sad, but my Comandante must not be as well as they say," said Guillermo Suarez, a street vendor selling sunglasses. "It`s already been many days that we haven`t seen him, heard him."
Chavez, who has been president since 1999, has long been a constant presence on Venezuelan television, often addressing the nation for several hours most days in addition to his marathon Sunday program "Hello, President”. But recently there have been no episodes of "Hello, President”, and Chavez said he expected his final rounds of radiation therapy, which began last month, to be rough.
Chavez has not discussed details of the radiation treatments, saying they have diminished his strength but have been going well. Last weekend, he decided not to attend the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the sort of high-profile international event where he would previously have taken centrestage.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro announced the decision, saying Chavez was skipping the summit on the advice of his doctors.
Chavez began radiation treatment in Cuba in late March after undergoing an operation in February that removed a second tumour from his pelvic region. The first was taken out last June. He has kept secret some details of his illness, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumours.
Chavez also was away in Havana regularly last year while undergoing chemotherapy after the initial surgery.
During previous trips to Cuba, Chavez periodically appeared on television, either in phone calls or appearances with his aides or daughters, and gave the appearance of continuing to work and keeping abreast of affairs at home.
Before his latest trip to Cuba, Chavez said he planned to stay away longer to allow for his last two rounds of radiation treatment. He urged his supporters to remain united and said an "anti-coup command" was being formed within his political movement to focus on maintaining stability and countering any possible attempt to destabilise his government.
In the past week, his Twitter messages have been read aloud by his Cabinet ministers at televised events. At one event Friday, Chavez`s supporters responded with shouts of "Onward, Comandante!"
In several Twitter messages on Saturday, Chavez urged his party to mobilise "toward the big victory of October 07" in the election. Another said: "Comrades you make me happy! Let`s keep fighting very hard to defeat the bourgeoisie! A downpour is falling over Havana, and I`m with you!"
Chavez`s online messages aim to "make it appear that the President is active, that the president is in control of what`s going on in Venezuela”, said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Venezuela`s Simon Bolivar University.
Carrasquero, a government critic, said that while Chavez has been coping with illness, long-standing problems such as rampant crime, inflation and sporadic shortages of some food items are going unresolved.
Without Chavez on the air, state television has instead shown a salsa concert, documentaries and a Mass. Such programs and newscasts are interspersed with a short segment showing a healthy Chavez embracing children in slow motion against a background of folk music.
Columnist Fausto Maso wrote in the newspaper El Nacional that "never has the uncertainty been greater in Venezuela”.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Dario Vivas dismissed concerns about Chavez keeping a lower profile, saying the President remains fully in charge and is regaining his health.
"The same people who complain that he talks a lot are the ones who get panicked when they don`t hear him," Vivas said.