Caracas: The most verbose President on the planet is strangely silent.
Venezuela`s Hugo Chavez, an avid tweeter whose speeches routinely go on for hours, has barely communicated in public since a June 10 operation in Cuba that has become increasingly shrouded in mystery and speculation as the days have gone by.
Usually on TV several times a day, Chavez has also been invisible except for a photo session with Cuba`s President Raul Castro and its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, where Chavez was smiling and upright but notably frailer.
Government ministers and Chavez supporters say there is nothing to worry about: the operation to remove an abscess in his pelvis was a success, two weeks is a normal recovery period and the "Comandante" will return triumphantly home soon.
"To stop the rumours and speculations, I can give evidence of the President`s health because I arrived last night from Havana," his brother Adan told state TV on Wednesday.
"He is recovering satisfactorily. We don`t know exactly when he`ll be back ... but in a few days, 10 days, 12 days, he should be here. ... He`s a very strong man."
Pro-government groups have been ready for days to fete Chavez`s return to the Miraflores presidential palace, reviving and suspending plans as rumours of his return come and go.
Opponents say the lack of details on his medical state show the nature of Chavez`s government.
"Under authoritarian governments, there are photos. In democracy, there is information," opposition legislator Americo de Grazia pointedly told Parliament this week.
Chavez`s foes have jumped on the Cold War-style whiff of secrecy over his health, hinting he may suffer from something really serious like cancer, or is at least abusing the Constitution with the unexplained and prolonged absence.
They are particularly upset that Chavez has been signing laws from Cuba, saying those might be illegal.
Fit for summit?
In his only public utterances -- a phone call with a TV network two days after the surgery -- Chavez actually fuelled rather than dampened speculation by noting there were no "malignant" signs found.
The famously workaholic and coffee-swilling Chavez also vowed to be back home in a "few days”, which has not happened.
He is supposed to host a Latin American leaders` summit in Venezuela on July 05, so there is a widespread assumption his goal is to be back at his usual energetic and loquacious best by that time.
Opposition newspapers, however, have reported that a military hospital is being spruced up, possibly to receive him upon return from Cuba. They have also been making hay out of deadly prison riots and electricity cuts to give an impression of chaos and collapse in Chavez`s absence.
His stay in Cuba has highlighted yet again the absence of an obvious successor in the ruling Socialist Party and the power vacuum there would be without him.
One of Venezuela`s best-known political analysts, Luis Vicente Leon, said the "blackout" of information could mean Chavez is really unwell, or be a masterful ploy to enhance his image with a grand return to public life.
"Having decided to turn his life into a reality show to demonstrate his strength, he has obviously decided not to show his weakness," he said.
"But I wouldn`t be surprised if we see a grand re-launch. If they want a show, then it`s strategic to generate a vacuum that will amplify the magic of his return ... to show that Superman overcomes all adversities."
Chavez`s near-disappearance from public life actually predates his Cuban operation. Prior to that, colds then a knee operation kept him off the airwaves and left him on crutches, though he did manage brief visits to Ecuador and Brazil.
The once-slender and sports-loving President has prided himself on a vigorous physical image during his 12 years in power. But in the last few years, the 56-year-old has gained weight and looked more haggard, though nothing beyond the normal aging process.
He plans to run for re-election in 2012 and serve at least one more six-year term.