CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez can take the oath of office for his next term before the Supreme Court at a later date if the ailing leader isn’t fit to be sworn in next week, his vice president said.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone Chavez’s inauguration as the 58-year-old president fights a severe respiratory infection more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro’s position in a televised interview on Friday night generated new friction between the government and opposition over the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur next Thursday before the National Assembly. Some opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn’t make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
Such brewing disagreements were aired Saturday when the congress, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority, convened to choose its president and other legislative leaders. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could potentially end up being the country’s interim president if Chavez’s illness forces him from office.
Speaking on television, Maduro held up a small blue copy of the constitution and read aloud passages as he argued that opponents were using erroneous interpretations to try to drive Chavez from power.
They should respect our constitution, the vice president said. The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez.
Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
Maduro’s comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez’s serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority, and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance.
Maduro reiterated on Friday that the president is fighting a complex battle for his health but expressed hope that eventually, we’ll see him and we’ll hear him.