Rumors, gossip, intrigue fill Venezuela’s political void
FILE - In this Oct 9, 2012 file photo, Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez holds a miniature copy of his country's constitution during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela. The ailing president's health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan. 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed. Officials have raised the possibility that Chavez might not be well enough to take the oath of office, without saying what will happen if he can't. The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly and that a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
A man walks past a mural of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. Both supporters and opponents of Chavez have been on edge in the past week amid shifting signals from the government about the president's health. Chavez has not been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 operation, and officials have reported a series of ups and downs in his recovery. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
CARACAS, Venezuela — Languishing in a Cuban hospital, recovering from cancer surgery marred by complications, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost a month.
Thursday, the 58-year-old firebrand is scheduled to be sworn in before the National Assembly to start a new six-year term.
Will he? Won’t he? Is he on his death bed? Rallying as he has after past medical procedures?
Nobody seems to know — or, if they know, they aren’t saying.
It’s a major political potboiler that has jangled the nerves of this country.
The inauguration — and exactly how it will be pulled off if Chavez fails to make an appearance — has sparked a national debate about who should be in charge of Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.
Some constitutional scholars and opposition voices say that if Chavez fails to appear, the head of the National Assembly must take control and oversee new elections within 30 days. But government supporters say the constitution, which Chavez helped overhaul in 1999, gives them the ability to stop the clock and buy their ailing leader more time to recover.
On Saturday, shortly after he was re-elected to head the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a staunch Chavez ally, said any talk of new elections to replace el comandante is tantamount to a coup.
“Chavez has been elected and will be president after Jan. 10. Let no one doubt that,” he told the packed legislature as he was sworn in. “We are going to enforce the constitution; get that in your head.”
Cabello — a former military officer who participated with Chavez in a failed 1992 coup — argues that the Supreme Court can swear in Chavez anywhere and anytime. That has conjured up images of the high court traveling to Havana for a bedside inauguration.
But Cecilia Sosa Flores, chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1996 to 1999, said the constitution is clear: the new president has to take office on Jan. 10 — on Venezuelan soil.
“If Chavez isn’t sworn in on Jan. 10, he is not president on the 11th,” she said.
She said the ruling party is hoping to bend the law to keep its leader in power at all costs.
“What we have here is dogma,” she said. “Chavez will govern whether he is sick; Chavez will govern even if he’s unconscious.”
After handily winning re-election in October, Chavez traveled to Cuba last month to undergo a fourth round of surgery to treat an undisclosed form of cancer that started in his pelvis. Since going under the knife Dec. 11, he hasn’t been seen or heard from, which has driven speculation that he’s taken a turn for the worse. On Thursday, officials admitted he was fighting a “severe pulmonary infection” and was having trouble breathing, but said his condition was stable.
Before heading to the island, Chavez asked authorities to call new elections if he was unable to take office, and called on the nation to back Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
The constitution requires elections within 30 days if the president is permanently incapacitated, steps down, is impeached or dies. But Chavez’s tenuous health might allow the administration to delay the vote, said Jose Vicente Haro, a professor of constitutional law at the Andres Bello Catholic University.
On Thursday, the Chavista-controlled National Assembly might declare that the president’s absence is “temporary” and grant him 90 days’ leave, which could be extended by another 90 days. After that, it would be forced to declare him permanently absent and call elections. But during the six-month interim the constitution would require Cabello to be the acting president.
However, there’s no rationale for Maduro to remain acting president after Thursday, he said. “That would be the most dangerous scenario,” he said. “The government’s very legitimacy would be at stake.”
There are signs that that’s exactly what will happen. Both Maduro and Cabello have said that nothing changes on Thursday - Chavez remains president, whether he’s sworn in or not, and his cabinet lineup remains unchanged.
“It’s very difficult to foresee what’s going to happen on Jan. 10, but what should happen is that the National Assembly will have an open and public debate about the issue,” Haro said. “And what should happen is that they find the scenario that’s best for Venezuelans and the political and economic interests of the country.”
On Thursday, Cabello and Maduro appeared on national television together and tried to quell rumors that they are locked in a power struggle. As they inspected a coffee factory, Maduro said that both men were like “brothers” and that they had taken an oath in front of Chavez to stay united for the nation.
But some don’t buy it.
“The obvious rivalry” between the two men “makes it difficult to believe everything they are telling us about the president’s health,” Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition legislator, said in a statement. “We cannot get to Jan. 10 without knowing whether Chavez will return or not, and much less without knowing who will be in charge of Venezuela while the president recovers.”
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Alfredo Weil, who was the head of the National Election Council for more than a decade, said the Maduro faction, which is seen to have the backing of the Cubans, would like to have elections as quickly as possible, so that the former union organizer and foreign minister can capitalize on his anointment as Chavez’s successor.
The Cabello faction wants to delay the vote as long as possible while he consolidates his power as interim president.
Sosa, the former chief magistrate, said the last 14 years of Chavez rule have prepared her for anything.
“It’s possible that Chavez lands in a plane on Jan. 10” for the inauguration, she said, only partially in jest. “And then heads back to Cuba.”
©2013 The Miami Herald
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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): VENEZUELA-CHAVEZ (Oct. 4, 2012)