By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Venezuela's bespectacled and shaven-headed information minister stands solemnly at the microphone to impart the latest news on President Hugo Chavez's cancer.
For a couple of minutes, vague descriptions of the patient's "stability", "progressive tendency" or "complications" waft across TV and radio airwaves into millions of Venezuelan homes.
"You see, he's recovering," says one Venezuelan man in a group watching live one of Information Minister Ernesto Villegas' medical updates, almost a national ritual since the socialist Chavez disappeared from public view six weeks ago.
"Rubbish - it's obvious he's dying," retorts another as the friends draw varying conclusions from the confusing report.
The handling of information over Chavez's condition has become as controversial as the man himself, and every official word is picked over ad nauseam in Venezuela's own version of the "Kremlinology" analysis of political minutiae in the former Soviet Union.
Since Chavez underwent his fourth and most serious cancer operation in Cuba on Dec. 11, he has not spoken a word in public. The government has tried to fill the information void with regular communiques - nearly 30 so far - by Villegas and Vice-President Nicolas Maduro.
They are often tricky to interpret.
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"President Chavez's state of health continues to be delicate, presenting complications that are being attended in a process not exempt of risk," read one statement just after Christmas, when there were rumors Chavez was on life support.
Some of the most specific have referred to Chavez's "breathing insufficiency" due to a lung infection. The term covers a large gamut of possibilities in Venezuelans' minds.
"The patient is in a state of progressive and favorable recovery of the normal values of his vital signs," said another communique, begging the question of what state he was in prior to that apparent upturn.
While the words "stability" and "progressive" have cropped up over and over, the first appearance of the word "stationary" in a Jan. 7 communique puzzled some.
"The president finds himself in a stationary situation in relation to what was described in the most recent report," it read. "Treatment is being applied permanently and rigorously, and the patient is assimilating it," it added, without a word on what that treatment consisted of.
On Christmas Eve, mixing their messages, Villegas said Chavez was in "absolute rest" while Maduro assured Venezuelans a few hours later he was exercising. Of late, the communiques have become more optimistic about Chavez's "favorable evolution" and "new phase" with officials hinting at a possible homecoming.
Such language, critics say, is reminiscent of the confusion over various Russian leaders' illnesses, from Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin's death in 1924 to a stream of others during the Cold War, or the secrecy-shrouded demise of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
There is a parallel, too, with the official reticence in Cuba over the health problems of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who mentored Chavez and is his closest ally.
By contrast, other Latin American leaders who have in recent years suffered cancer - including from Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay - have authorized doctors to release full details.
At first, after being diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic region in mid-2011, Chavez was his own spokesman. His emotive personality always came through, fighting back tears when explaining the illness then brimming with joy at declarations of recovery that later proved wrong.
Yet throughout the speeches, there were few hard medical details, rather descriptions of a "baseball-sized tumor" or the "miracle" of recovery, and musings on his journey to the "abyss" laced with quotes from German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche.
Many Venezuelans have been going to unofficial internet "sources" to hunt for more about Chavez's health.
Most high-profile are Nelson Bocaranda, an opposition journalist and columnist with more than a million Twitter followers, and Jose Rafael Marquina, a Venezuelan doctor in Miami whose tweets alternate between complex medical terminology and caustic political attacks.
Both men claim close sources among the Cuban, Venezuelan and Brazilian doctors treating Chavez. But plenty of would-be Internet oracles have got it wrong - various forecasts and talk of Chavez's death have been premature and embarrassing.
Amid the barrage of opposition complaints over secrecy, the government says it has never been more open and lashes out at ill-intentioned "necrophiliacs" demanding more.
Opposition leaders want an independent medical committee to travel to Havana to see if Chavez is fit to continue in power. If not, he would have to hand over to a caretaker president prior to a new election as mandated by the constitution.
One group of humorists sought to lighten the grave national mood - and lampoon officials - with a merciless take on the Villegas-Maduro information double act.
"Commander Chavez is stable in that situation I won't tell you about," its spoof Villegas said. "He requires unspecified treatment to calm supposed problems that could affect him, or not, in the place of the illness, I mean, that thing."
They were no less biting with Maduro, putting into his mouth a phrase reminiscent of English writer George Orwell's famous send-up of totalitarianism in the book 'Animal Farm': "The president is stable, some days less stable, some days more stable, and sometimes in a state of excessive stability."
Such mockery infuriates Chavez's allies, who say opponents and foreign media are showing glee at his suffering.
One pro-government analyst acknowledged officials had been less than forthcoming, but said they were entitled to be given the "warlike" atmosphere in Venezuela, where opposition leaders spent years trying to force Chavez from office through national strikes, a failed coup and an oil industry shutdown.
Villegas himself described the mood as similar to the brief putsch against Chavez in April of 2002, when foes exulted while supporters trusted in the president's return.
"No one believed it and they said we were liars," said Villegas, who worked at state TV at the time. "Then he came back, took out his crucifix and spoke. It can happen just like that again you know, friends." (Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Diego Ore, Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons)