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One of Latin America's most visible leaders was invisible for much of this month. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently goes on TV to accuse the U.S. of plotting against him. And then he vanished. He hadn't been seen in public since June 10th. That's when he underwent surgery in Cuba. Now he has reappeared in videos chatting with Fidel Castro. NPR's Juan Forero reports on what the videos show and do not show about the Venezuelan leader's health.

JUAN FORERO: Chavez walks gingerly but his message to Castro is vintage Chavez.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Socialism or death we'll be victorious, he tells Castro, a father figure to Chavez.

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And with soft music from a daytime soap opera playing, the footage shows the two men standing close to each other and reading two Cuban state newspapers making sure that viewers are aware the papers were from Tuesday.

Pres. HUGO CHAVEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

Mr. FIDEL CASTRO (Former President of Cuba): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: It's a proof-of-life video, Venezuela-style, which Venezuelan officials say is designed to end rumors about Chavez's health. Communications Minister Andres Izarra, presenting the video on Venezuelan state television, can hardly contain his joy.

Mr. ANDRES IZARRA (Communications minister, Venezuela): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Let's see it again, Izarra says, let's see it again.

It's easy to see why officials are so excited. For 18 days, they faced an increasingly anxious political class demanding to know what is happening with Chavez. What they said in public only fueled rumors as when the foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, told reporters that Chavez was in a battle.

Mr. NICOLAS MADURO (Foreign minister, Venezuela): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: He called it, quote, "a battle for life."

For many in Venezuela, it's hard to understand why the government is being so secretive.

Mr. CARLOS CORREA (Public Space): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: Carlos Correa, the head of the think tank Public Space, said that had generated more speculation. Correa said it was strange because over his twelve years in power, Chavez has been on television practically every day. Indeed, with cameras rolling, Chavez inaugurates state projects, presides over summits and visits poor neighborhoods.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: On his "Hello Mr. President" show, he hectors opponents and warns of diabolical American plots against him.

Then on June 10th in Cuba, he came down with abdominal pains and was rushed into surgery. Two days later, on June 12th, Chavez phoned Venezuelan state television to say he was recuperating. That is the last time Venezuelans heard his voice. And that prompted some Venezuelans, among them Demetrio Boersner, a former diplomat, to argue that Chavez's absence should trigger a temporary transfer of power.

Mr. DEMETRIO BOERSNER (Former Diplomat): According to the constitution and the constitutional tradition of Venezuela, when the president is absent the vice president should take over almost automatically.

FORERO: Chavez's aides, though, say there is no need that the president is running the affairs of state from Cuba.

Until now, Chavez's health has never really been in question. The 56-year-old populist may love the rich food of his country and has clearly put on some pounds, but he's also known for his boundless energy.

Still, it remains unclear what ailment Chavez has and when he'll make a full recovery. In the videos from Cuba, he doesn't say.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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