Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gather outside the National… (Raul Arboleda, AFP/Getty…)
CARACAS, Venezuela — The nerves of Venezuelans are sure to be tested in the coming week as the country seeks answers not only to the mystery of President Hugo Chavez's medical condition and prognosis but also to the debate over constitutional requirements should he be unable to take the oath of office Thursday to start a fourth term.
On Saturday, Chavez confidant and former army comrade Diosdado Cabello was reelected as National Assembly president, a key position that would make him the leader in any process to call a new election to replace Chavez if the fiery socialist dies or is deemed "permanently incapacitated."
Chavez has not been seen or heard from since he left Venezuela in early December for Cuba, where he underwent his fourth surgery to treat pelvic cancer. In sporadic and thinly detailed medical updates, officials have said he has encountered postoperative problems, including "respiratory insufficiency," that have dimmed his chances of being present for his inauguration.
After being reelected to his assembly post by his fellow lawmakers, Cabello said Chavez did not need to be sworn in Thursday to retain his presidential powers because he has permission from the National Assembly to be absent from the country.
"If Chavez isn't here by Jan. 10, the constitution establishes that he can be sworn in before the Supreme Court, although it doesn't specify how or when," Cabello said. "The president received unanimous permission from the assembly to be absent, and that is still in effect."
Constitutional law expert Carlos Ayala agreed that Chavez can be granted two oath-taking postponements for a total of 180 days in the event he is "temporarily incapacitated." But he said Venezuelans are entitled to proof that Chavez is alive, is tending to his duties and has a positive prognosis.
"The citizenry has a legitimate right to know the facts surrounding the mental and physical condition of the head of state," said Ayala, a professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "If he cannot exercise his duties and obligations under the constitution, then that leads to constitutional consequences."
If Chavez is so ill that he cannot competently carry out his duties, then he could be declared "permanently incapacitated." That would trigger a constitutional requirement for the National Assembly president to call a new presidential election within 30 days, Ayala said.
On Friday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro — whom Chavez has designated as his political heir and preferred successor — said the 58-year-old president was "resting and recuperating" and emerging from what he previously said was a "delicate postoperative phase."
But other pronouncements have been less positive. Communications and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said last week that Chavez was experiencing "respiratory insufficiency," raising the possibility that Chavez is on a respirator or even comatose.
Luis Salamanca, a constitutional law expert at Central University of Venezuela, said "reading between the lines" of official announcements "verifies that things are getting worse."
Political consultant and commentator Ricardo Sucre said the Chavez government seems to be trying to frame the oath-taking as a "mere formality." If that interpretation is accepted, it would enable the government to defer the constitutional requirement to clarify the president's condition and, in a worst-case scenario, to avoid starting the wheels turning for a new presidential election.
Some opposition figures are openly questioning why the Chavez government has not decided to seek a postponement of the swearing-in under a "temporary incapacitation" provision if, in fact, Chavez's prognosis is one of recovery and not imminent death.
If Chavez is deathly ill, his successors will try to "draw out the process as long as possible to consolidate their power and take advantage of Chavez's image to better appropriate it for themselves," Sucre said.
Although Chavez won reelection in October in convincing fashion against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the chances of success in another election against Capriles are much less certain for any Chavez successor, including Maduro or Cabello.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College, said opposition politicians should be careful not to create the impression that they are trying to gain power "on the possible disability or death of the leader they were unable to defeat in life."
"There is no harm in letting the process unfold and waiting to see if Chavez regains his health or not," Tinker Salas said. "The people of Venezuela freely elected Chavez in October 2012, and their decision on this matter should be respected."
Special correspondents Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia, and Mogollon from Caracas.