CARACAS -- Of all the people flocking here Thursday to mark President Hugo Chávez’s new six-year term, the man of the hour, the ailing Comandante, will not be among them.
On Tuesday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced that Chávez will miss the event, as he remains in Cuba where he is recovering from complicated cancer surgery that has kept him incommunicado for a month.
Reading a statement from the vice president’s office, Cabello said Chávez’s medical team advised him not to return. “His post-surgery recovery will extend beyond Jan. 10,” Cabello said. “That is why he cannot appear before the assembly on that date.”
Chávez’s swearing-in will take place before the Supreme Court on some unspecified date, Cabello said.
Amid rumors and speculation that Chávez’s health has taken a turn for the worse, the government has acknowledged that he suffered a hemorrhage during the six-hour operation on Dec. 11 and that he’s been fighting a “severe” lung infection since.
On Monday, the government called his status “stationary” and said the patient was “assimilating” the treatment.
But during a raucous meeting of the National Assembly on Tuesday, where miniature copies of the constitution were thrown across the aisle, opposition deputies asked why, if Chávez is purportedly still giving orders, he didn’t sign the letter, and suggested that he’s under Cuba’s sway.
“Venezuela has to be governed by Venezuelans,” said opposition deputy Julio Borges, “Not the Castro brothers, not [Bolivia’s] Evo Morales and not [Nicaragua’s] Daniel Ortega.”
The Catholic Church, some legal experts and the opposition have said Thursday’s event is unconstitutional. They argue that the president’s absence on the mandated day requires Cabello to take the helm of the government until Chávez returns.
Those arguments have fallen on deaf ears. The ruling PSUV says Chávez’s 14-year administration will simply continue and that the swearing-in is a purely symbolic affair that can take place whenever the leader sees fit.
Cabello accused the opposition of twisting the constitution in hopes of getting rid of Chávez, who has ruled for 14 years and won a commanding victory in October. The assembly ignored opposition demands that an independent medical team be sent to Havana to evaluate the president’s health, but passed a motion in support of Chávez’s recovery.
“President, take your time,” said ruling party deputy Elvis Amoroso, “and come back to Venezuela when you’re fully healthy.”
The opposition has asked the Chavista controlled Supreme Court to weigh in on the conflict and plans to petition the Organization of American States. On Tuesday, Miranda Gov. and opposition standard-bearer Henrique Capriles called on the high court to expedite its ruling.
“To us, it’s clear how the constitution should be interpreted, but there are others who have their own interpretations that play with anarchy,” Capriles said at a press conference. “A scenario of conflict — where everyone does what they want — is not in anyone’s interest in Venezuela. Even though [the court] has been hijacked by a particular political party, we will not give up the fight.”
While Chávez may be a no-show, Thursday will have many of the trappings of an inauguration. The administration has asked supporters to rally around the presidential palace, and delegations from Ecuador, Uruguay and other countries are expected to attend. The evening will be capped with a free concert by the country’s youth orchestra.
In a statement, U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a longtime Venezuela critic, asked the state department to condemn Thursday’s event, saying it proved “the authoritarian and undemocratic Chávez regime would do anything to maintain its iron grip.”
Chávez, 58, has been battling an undisclosed form of cancer since at least June 2011. Last month, he returned to Cuba to undergo a fourth round of surgery and has not been seen or heard from since. If he were to die or step down, it would trigger elections within 30 days. Before departing, he asked the nation to rally around Vice President Nicolás Maduro if snap elections are called.
But his allies have insisted that Chávez is still at the helm of this oil-rich nation and will return to the presidential palace.