CARACAS — Venezuela is abuzz these days over the condition of its normally omnipresent president, Hugo Chavez -- whose prolonged, uncharacteristic silence and convalescence in Cuba has generated all manner of rumour.
The firebrand leader, who is usually given to verbose speeches across all media, has been silent since he was hospitalized June 10 in Havana for what officials said was an operation for a pelvic abscess.
No interviews, no broadcast tirades, and no Twitter postings for two weeks have fuelled speculation across online social networks and in bars and cafes.
Officials have tried to be reassuring, saying 56-year-old Chavez was recovering well and was continuing to give orders from Cuba and keep abreast of developments in Venezuela. The Cuban government released a photo Saturday of Chavez visiting with Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, in what appears to be a hospital.
But many citizens remain unconvinced. All the more so that a riot last week in a prison that left 25 people dead, and an electricity crisis -- both events that would normally elicit a quick response, and perhaps hours of chatter, from the president -- have prompted no media appearance at all from Chavez.
"It's all very dark, opaque and mysterious," Ignacio Avalos, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela, told AFP.
"It's very unclear. As a Venezuelan, I would have bet my two kidneys that Chavez would have at least said something about what happened in El Rodeo prison."
Chavez left Venezuela on June 5 for a tour taking in Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. Since the official news about his operation, no more details have been given by doctors in Havana, and Venezuelan authorities have been tight-lipped.
"The president is in the process of recovering. Soon, Hugo Chavez will be here in Venezuela," said Vice President Elias Jaua, a figure loyal to Chavez who has rejected any suggestion of him taking over presidential duties temporarily.
Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the Datanalisis polling firm, said he believed the secrecy surrounding Chavez's illness was an attempt to preserve the president's image as an "invulnerable man."
"They are trying to pass off the problem as minor, that it hit him by chance while he was in Havana and that he can rule from Cuba for a while... This could be a way to set up a triumphal return. But Chavez has to reappear soon, because otherwise it could prove dangerous to his image," he said.
So far, authorities have not invoked a constitutional passage that would decree Jaua taking over temporarily because of a presidential absence.
But in the legislature, a fierce debate is raging over whether Chavez has the right to rule from abroad. The minority opposition is demanding more transparency.
"Right now, the invincible superhero who was about to throw himself into a campaign to win an election is sick. And that loss of his invulnerability could undermine the campaign," Leon said.
That was in reference to a 2012 presidential election that Chavez aims to see deliver him a third mandate of six years.
Avalos said Chavez's silence on the eve of the electoral campaign "doesn't favour the government at all."
"Venezuelans who hold hope in the government are now seeing that 'Chavismo' with Chavez seems impossible. And that is creating a great deal of uneasiness because they are feeling that there is no one able to replace him," he said.
"We have to wait and see what is going on behind this silence."