International News

Sorry Miami, That's Not Really Hugo Chavez On a Breathing Machine

The dramatic photo went viral last night, shared hundreds of times on Facebook and splashed across Latin American blogs. It showed Hugo Chavez in exactly the kind of dire condition so many of his opponents believed he was in since missing his inauguration earlier this month: Strapped into a breathing machine, bald and struggling for breath. The photo even had a legit back story: It ran on the front page of this morning's El Pais, the respected Spanish daily.

Sorry, anti-Chavistas. It's a fake.

It's easy to see why the pic gained currency -- there's a definite resemblance to Chavez in the photo. But more importantly, the Venezuelan government has been tight-lipped about the Bolivarian strongman's condition since he returned to Cuba in December for more cancer treatments.

The fact that he was unable to travel back to Caracas for his scheduled Jan. 11 inauguration could only mean he was in dire condition. Enter the photo:

It's not clear where the photo actually came from, but El Pais helped it explode across the web. The biggest paper in Spain ran the pic in early editions under the headline: "The Secret of Hugo Chavez's Illness."

But sometime late last night -- as the pic was exploding across the web -- the paper realized it had been duped.

That isn't Chavez, it's just some random bald fellow. The paper scrambled to change its front page for later editions and ran this correction, via the Atlantic Wire:

El Pais apologizes to its readers for the damage caused. The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the circumstances of what happened and the errors that were committed in the verification of the photo.
Truth is, some of the blame lies with Chavez's own administration: When you're so tight-lipped about the president's obviously serious health condition, these kinds of frauds are bound to fill the information void.

One Chavez ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, claims Chavez is back on the upswing, telling reporters on Tuesday that his Venezuelan counterpart "is receiving physiotherapy to return to his country."

In the meantime, as always, be wary of what you see on the Web.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink