Venezuela Constitutional Showdown Looms as Chavez Stays in Cuba

Venezuela is heading toward a constitutional showdown as allies of Hugo Chavez and the opposition accuse each other of using the socialist president’s battle with cancer to plot a coup.

At issue is whether Chavez, who was re-elected on Oct. 7, will appear in Caracas this week to be sworn in for a third, six-year term. While the constitution mandates Chavez take an oath before Congress on Jan. 10, it also allows for the Supreme Court to administer the oath in exceptional circumstances, a fact that Vice President Nicolas Maduro says makes the scheduled ceremony a mere “formality” that can be delayed.

Opponents of Chavez, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, are distorting the constitution by saying that he must show up for the Jan. 10 swearing-in ceremony or be declared ineligible to govern, Maduro said Jan. 4. That criticism was echoed by Attorney General Cilia Flores, who said yesterday that the Oct. 7 election the former paratrooper won by a landslide holds sway over the Jan. 10 inauguration date.

“The important and determinant date here is Oct. 7 in which the people expressed their sovereignty and that has to be respected,” Flores said in an interview with Telesur network. “We have a president that’s been re-elected and holds the office. He already has the presidential sash and the symbols of power.”

Chavez will still be recovering in Cuba from his operation on Jan. 10, said Flores, who is also Maduro’s partner.

‘Whenever Possible’

On Jan. 10, Chavez “remains in power and will be sworn in whenever possible,” Maduro said in an hour-long interview broadcast on state television Jan. 4. He warned the opposition against trying to carry out a “coup” by interpreting to its advantage the charter’s provisions for a presidential succession.

Ramon Jose Medina, the deputy head of the opposition alliance, warned on Jan. 3 that the National Assembly President must take over the presidency if Chavez’s health impedes him from being sworn in. If Chavez’s absence is deemed permanent, new elections must be held within 30 days.

“We’ve seen that by talking about the continuity of Chavez’s government they’ve been openly talking about a theory that in my opinion is unacceptable because it doesn’t respect the constitution,” Medina said in a phone interview. “That would be a coup d’etat.”

Re-Elected

Venezuelan lawmakers elected Diosdado Cabello on Jan. 5 to remain as president of the National Assembly. He will become the acting head of state if Chavez doesn’t swear in as president and is then declared too ill to perform his functions. If that doesn’t happen, Maduro will remain as the de-facto head of the government.

“I swear to do all I need to do to fulfill the word of this revolution’s leader,” Cabello said in a nationally televised address after the vote. “And so the people that voted in October won’t feel defrauded.”

Chavez, 58, is experiencing a “severe” respiratory infection that is making it hard for him to breathe after undergoing his fourth surgery in 18 months, the Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Jan. 3.

Maduro said he’ll remain in his post together with Chavez even if the cancer-stricken leader isn’t sworn in this week.

“The inauguration of January 10 is a mere formality,” Maduro said at a rally Dec. 5 in Caracas. “One day when there is an opportunity, it’ll be done.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jose Orozco in Caracas at jorozco8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net

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