A major newspaper is at the centre of a huge hoax storm after printing an image it believed was an ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on its front page, only for the photograph to be revealed as a fake.

El Pais, the biggest newspaper in Spain and major source of printed information for Spanish-speaking countries, published the picture on the front page of today’s edition alongside a headline: 'The secret of Chavez's illness'.

Chavez, 58, underwent a fourth round of cancer surgery last month and has not been seen in public since.

Officials have said his health has improved despite complications but opposition members had demanded Chavez speak to the Venezuelan people in state media if he is able.

And in what was supposed to be a major international scoop, El Pais published a photo showing a man, they believed to be Chavez, intubated on the operating table in what is a hugely sensitive and contentious political issue.

However, it has emerged this picture was a crude internet hoax and for the first time in decades El Pais has pulled editions from the newstands. They are believed to have paid for the image believing it was genuine.

The fake image on the front of today's El Pais. Photo: Supplied

On the El Pais website, the newspaper has apologized to readers and promised to open an investigation.

The picture was on the website for over an hour and El Pais claims it was provided the image by a news agency.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in the streets of Caracas in support of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez yesterday , overshadowing a much smaller rival rally by the opposition.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro returned late Wednesday to Havana to visit Chavez, who has been convalescing in Cuba since his latest surgery last month, but whose condition is improving, according to Caracas.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to the 58-year-old Chavez in October's election, meanwhile challenged the ailing leader to speak to the nation if he is able, saying the Venezuelan people deserve "peace of mind."

Chavez supporters -clad in red shirts bearing the phrase "Chavez is all of us" -- however seemed to need no reassurances about their president's prolonged absence from the oil-rich South American country.

Bearing flags, crosses, and pictures of Chavez and independence hero Simon Bolivar, pro-government demonstrators converged on the capital's January 23 neighborhood for the main rally.

Chavez, who had surgery on December 11, was too sick to attend his January 10 inauguration, prompting the government to delay the swearing-in indefinitely under an interpretation of the constitution criticized by the opposition.

The Chavez-controlled National Assembly and Supreme Court both approved the arrangement, which keeps his administration in place under Maduro until Chavez can take the oath of office for his fourth term.

Capriles, speaking to reporters after a rally of more than 3,000 opposition faithful, said that if Chavez's condition was improving, he should end his prolonged silence and speak to the nation.

"The government has said that the president is walking, that he is joking. So why does he not speak to the nation and give some peace of mind to his followers and all Venezuelans?" asked Capriles.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua had said after a visit with Chavez that the president has been talking with aides, giving orders and cracking jokes.

Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, flatly charged that the executive branch was "lying and toying with people's hope," and urged Chavez to return home and govern as he was elected to do.

Chavez, an anti-US firebrand leftist, is known for filling up hours of state media time a day with his own speeches, ceremonies and personal reflections.

Most analysts believe Capriles would be the opposition candidate to take on Maduro, Chavez's self-appointed successor, if the president were unable to govern.

Maduro said Wednesday he was traveling again to Havana to visit the ailing president, after predicting on Sunday that Chavez would return home sooner rather than later.

He said he and oil minister Rafael Ramirez, who traveled with him, would take to Chavez "the love and greetings" of the people and take turn keeping Chavez and his family company.

The government also charged Wednesday that right-wing extremists were plotting to attack Maduro.

"We have received some very important intelligence in which actors from Venezuela's extreme right, working with right-wing actors from outside the country, were plotting an attack against the vice president" and National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, said Interior Minister Nestor Reverol.

"Anyone who makes this mistake will go to prison. Anyone who violates the Constitution ... will go to prison. We have a hard line against right-wing conspiracy," Maduro said.

The opposition used the January 23 anniversary to make a pitch for its vision of democratic rule.

"We fight and fight to restore the authority of the constitution," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a leader of the 'La Mesa' coalition, at the smaller-than-expected opposition demonstration.

Like Maduro, he praised the spirit of the movement that toppled Jimenez, but he called the current government "an authoritarian political regime."

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