The Venezuelan government released on Friday the first photographs of President Hugo Chavez since Dec. 10, the day before he underwent a fourth operation in Cuba for the cancer he has been battling for 20 months.

Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, the president's son-in-law, displayed the images during a national television appearance.

Chavez, clad in a Venezuelan military academy warm-up suit, is seen lying in a Havana hospital bed reading the Feb. 14 edition of Cuban Communist Party daily Granma.

The 58-year-old president, his face slightly swollen, is smiling as his two adult daughters stand on either side of the bed.

The pictures were taken Thursday night, Arreaza said after Communication Minister Ernesto Villegas relayed the latest medical bulletin from Havana.

Though the respiratory infection that developed after the Dec. 11 surgery is under control, Chavez still needs a tracheal tube to assist his breathing and the tube makes it difficult for him to speak, Villegas said.

Even so, the minister said, Chavez "is conscious, with his intellectual functions intact, in close communication with his government team and dealing with the fundamental tasks inherent to his office."

The leftist head of state was first diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic area during a June 2011 official visit to Cuba. Since then, he has submitted to four operations and courses of chemotherapy and radiation.

In office since 1999, Chavez was re-elected last October and is due to serve until January 2019. EFE