It appears that allies of Hugo Chavez are relying on some constitutional legerdemain in order to ensure the ailing dictator can still exercise authority when — or if — he recovers sufficiently from his most recent surgery in Cuba to resume his official duties.
Chavez, winner of the presidential election held in October, was set to take the oath of office on January 10. But complications from his recent cancer surgery will almost certainly prevent his return from Cuba in order for him to fulfill that constitutional requirement.
No problem, says the dictator’s putative successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro:
President Hugo Chavez’s formal swearing-in for a new six-year term scheduled for January 10 can be postponed if he is unable to attend due to his battle to recover from cancer surgery, Venezuela’s vice president said on Friday.
Nicolas Maduro’s comments were the clearest indication yet that the Venezuelan government is preparing to delay the swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or calling a new election in the South American OPEC nation.
In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks. Allies say he is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.
The political opposition argues that Chavez’s presence on January 10 in Cuba – where there are rumors he may be dying – is tantamount to the president’s stepping down.
But Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Chavez was sworn in at a later date by the nation’s top court.
“The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions,” he said.
“The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in coordination with the head of state.”
In the increasing “Kremlinology”-style analysis of Venezuela’s extraordinary political situation, that could be interpreted in different ways: that Maduro and other allies trust Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying time to cement succession plans before going into an election.
Despite his serious medical condition, there was no reason to declare Chavez’s “complete absence” from office, Maduro said. Such a declaration would trigger a new vote within 30 days, according to Venezuela’s charter.
Chavez himself was known to play fast and loose with the constitution so it’s no surprise his deputy would follow suit. Besides, there is no one in Venezuela who can seriously challenge that interpretation and no court that would rule otherwise.
Maduro tried vainly to scotch rumors that Chavez was on his death bed and in a coma, saying that the dictator was “conscious and fighting to recover.” But Maduro’s presence in Cuba, along with many Chavez cronies and advisors, would seem to belie any optimistic assessment of his condition.
The death of Chavez is likely to plunge Venezuela into a serious political crisis. A new election might give the political opposition led by Henrique Capriles another chance to rid the country of Chavez’s influence, but many observers are saying that even if Capriles could find a way to win, fanatical Chavistas would look to prevent any change in power. That’s a recipe for a civil war — another aspect of the troubled legacy that would be left by Chavez if he exits the scene.