Venezuelan court approves inauguration delay for ill Chavez

Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 2:00am

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a battle over the country's leadership Wednesday, but the fight isn't over.

Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that Chavez will begin a new term on Thursday, even though health problems will prevent him from attending an inauguration before the National Assembly.

But several key questions are still looming: How long will Chavez be in Cuba for cancer treatment? How dire is his medical situation? And will simmering political tension about who's running the country boil over?

Opposition politicians have argued that delaying Chavez's swearing in leaves no one in charge of Venezuela once the current term ends. Chavez allies -- including a majority of lawmakers in the country's congress -- have said he should remain in power while taking the time he needs to recuperate.

The 58-year-old Venezuelan president has been treated for cancer in Cuba for the past month, most recently battling respiratory complications that surged after surgery.

Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling backs the government's position that the chain of command in Venezuela stays the same, even as one presidential term ends and a new one starts.

"Despite the 10th of January beginning a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in is not necessary in his position," said Luisa Estella Morales, president of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Calling it a "historic moment," Morales said that the court's interpretation of the constitution was debated by all the justices.

The Supreme Court weighs in

Morales' remarks addressed a number of questions that have surged over the country's leadership and political future, but left others unanswered.

Under the constitution, Chavez can be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court, she said.

The constitution states that a medical board can be convened to consider whether a president is incapacitated, but at no time has the Supreme Court considered that step, Morales said.

She noted that lawmakers have authorized Chavez's leave from the country for health reasons, and Chavez is neither temporarily nor permanently absent from his post.

A permanent absence would have triggered new elections under the constitution.

Some Chavez supporters have said it is possible for the Supreme Court justices to travel to Cuba and perform the oath of office at the Venezuelan Embassy there. The Supreme Court president said it is too early to think about that.

"We know that it's necessary and undoubtedly something that will be complied with, but at this moment we could not speculate about when, where and how the president will be sworn in," she said.

Her comments echoed a statement read to lawmakers by the vice president on Tuesday, stating that a delayed inauguration is legal.

That the Supreme Court -- stacked with Chavez loyalists -- sided with the president's party is not surprising, but it remains to be seen if the ruling will prevent any political turmoil.

Chavez supporters, opposition square off

On Wednesday, both sides seemed still to be bracing for a fight.

Government authorities called a rally Wednesday evening "in support of the constitution," and opposition leaders were expected to speak out about the ruling later in the day.

Supporters and critics of Chavez both point to the country's constitution but offer wildly different interpretations of what it says.

Opposition lawmakers say that Chavez should be declared temporarily absent from his presidential post to avoid a power vacuum.

They argue that Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, should temporarily assume the presidency while Chavez recovers.

But Cabello, a close Chavez ally and member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, said that would be unconstitutional.

Henrique Capriles, the man Chavez defeated at the polls in October, had earlier called on the Supreme Court to clarify the confusion.

Chavez has not been seen in public and officials have not released any photographs of him since he arrived in Havana for his fourth cancer operation in early December, fueling speculation that his health is worse than the government is letting on.

'Faith that our comandante will return'

Chavez's health is a hot topic on the streets of the country's capital.

"We have faith that our comandante will return to Venezuela and with good health," Caracas resident Nicolas Medina said.

He did not have worries of unrest as inauguration day approached.

"Nothing is going to happen," Medina said. "It's going to be a normal day. The sun is going to shine and the sun will go down and the 11th will begin."

Others say they have faith, but want more proof that the president is recovering.

"None of us know anything about him -- some say he is dead, or he's not dead -- we have to wait," said Rommel Quintera. "We need to hear from him what has happened. He is a president who has always given answers to the people. In small things and big, he has always shown his face for everything."

Quintera wants to see a message directly from the president, who in the past has called into state television to provide updates while he recuperated from cancer treatment in Cuba.

Since Chavez's cancer surgery in Havana last month, government officials have delivered updates for his health.

Last week, a government spokesman said Chavez was battling a severe lung infection that has caused respiratory failure. Ernesto Villegas said the president was following a strict treatment regimen for "respiratory insufficiency" caused by the infection.

His condition remained unchanged Monday, the government said in a statement.

"Treatment has been administered permanently and rigorously, and the patient is supporting it," the statement said.

A rally for Chavez

Even though Chavez won't be sworn in Thursday, many regional leaders are heading to Caracas and Havana to show their support for the ailing leader.

Chavez's party has called for his supporters to gather in front of the presidential palace on Thursday in support of the president. Officials have said Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and Bolivian President Evo Morales will be among them, as will the foreign ministers of Ecuador and Argentina.

On Wednesday, one Venezuelan opposition leader called on officials from other countries to cancel their plans to attend.

Those who participate in Thursday's ceremony in Caracas care more about handouts they get from Venezuela than the country itself, said Julio Borges, national coordinator for the opposition Justice First party.

"We ask the governments of other countries to please not involve themselves in a problem that is an internal problem of the governing party," he said.

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