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    The Curious Communist Product Placement in the Photos That Prove Hugo Chavez Isn't Dead

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Venezuela’s Ministry of Information just released images of Hugo Chavez to prove he was indeed alive and well; here, he can be seen smiling wide as he reads a Cuban newspaper with his daughters in a Havana hospital bed. Chavez’s health has been the subject of ample controversy in the country where he was just reelected president. He has now undergone four cancer treatments and missed his inauguration and the beginning of his term. Many were convinced that he had been dead for days.

    These photos are supposed to set the public’s worried mind to ease—how sick can the leftist strongman really be if he can read and smile and josh around with his daughters, right? Obviously, there’s still plenty of disquiet, especially since he’s failed to offer any sort of public address, like he regularly did during other stages of his illness, on television or radio or even Twitter.

    So these images are all they have. The only evidence that Chavez is alive and well and fit enough to run a nation of 30 million people. And the Ministry of Information, home one of the best-looking government websites I've stumbled on in my weary internet travels, knows that. They released four separate images of Chavez in bed with his daughters—enough, ostensibly, to prove that this was no arduously staged photo op wherein the president collapsed immediately after the camera clicked. It's staged, sure, but the strain is minimal.

    No, Chavez and daughters are laughing, mugging, and really enjoying this edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Obviously, the paper works as an uber-obvious sort of time-stamp, proving Chavez is healthy in the here-and-now. But this is 2013; there are plenty of other ways to make a time stamp—digital camera metadata, dates on a cable TV show, etc. So seeing as how the paper is prominently featured in all but one of the photos, the series also serves as a sort of a plug for Cuba, and for communism—propagandic product placement, if you will. Solidarity, advertised. 

    Along with the series of images, the Ministry also helpfully published a reprint of the very story Chavez and his daughters were reading and enjoying so very much in this photo:

    It's a republished letter written by Cuban hero Jose Marti, a beloved leader of the nation's independence movement, to his sister Amelia. Marti is to Cuba as Simon Bolivar is to Venezuela, as George Washington is to the United States. He's known as the "apostle of Cuban independence." Cuba's international airport is named after him.

    As such, we might assume Chavez or his handlers are beckoning a comparison to the heroic figure. Now, Google Translate is not to be entirely trusted, and my high school-level Spanish isn't either, but it appears that the letter is mostly part of a sweet and thoughtful exchange between Jose Marti and his sister—he misses her, he ruminates on the nature of love, and discusses the various qualities of their father.

    If there's any line that Chavez might see himself in, it'd be this one: "I'm a pilot myself, facing the winds of life, and dragging out a noble and beautiful boat, working as traveling, going by water."

    The Ministry could have simply included the story in its press package in case Venezuelans were curious about what Chavez was reading. Maybe it simply helped that it was a wistful, melancholic piece of writing by one of Latin America's most celebrated leaders. The paper may have been floating around the room, or a bleary-eyed Chavez might have been leafing and maybe the moment was seized upon in the way opportunist political consultants and PR strategists are trained to seize them—pose with that elderly vet, hug your daughters, kiss that baby, mug with a photo of an historic anti-colonial hero in a communist newspaper. This may be Chavez's last blast of propaganda if his health continues to decline, and it certainly couldn't hurt.

    Either way, Chavez's supporters—and they are myriad—were clearly moved by the result.