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Venezuela Court Could Rule on Chavez Inauguration, Officials Say

Top Venezuelan officials have left open the possibility that cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez may not have to be sworn-in Jan. 10 to start a new six-year term, as stipulated in the country’s constitution.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro said yesterday that while he’s praying for the president’s recovery in Cuba, the country’s constitutional court “has a great capacity to interpret the constitution” with respect to the swearing-in date. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello told reporters on Dec. 18 that there are precedents for delaying inaugurations in Venezuela, El Nacional reported.

The comments alarmed an opposition concerned that the government may try to delay the ceremony, and subsequent national elections, if Chavez is too ill to take office.

“The president should present himself on January 10 and take his oath,” opposition alliance secretary Ramon Jose Medina said in a statement yesterday. “The date is constitutionally set and can’t be changed for personal opinions or political convenience.”

Under Venezuelan law, if Chavez steps down before Jan. 10, Maduro would see out the rest of the current term and then hand over power to Cabello, who must call for an election within 30 days. If Chavez is unable to start his new term Jan. 10 but does not step down, the National Assembly president must determine if the absence is temporary or absolute.

Both Cabello and Maduro have made conflicting statements on the issue. Calls to Cabello’s office by Bloomberg weren’t answered. An official at the presidential press office, who asked not to be named because of ministry policy, said yesterday that he could not immediately provide clarification on Maduro’s comments.

‘Constitutional Advantage’

“We have a constitutional advantage,” Maduro said in statements broadcast on state television. “For any issue that needs to be settled, we’ve got the Constitutional Court, which has a great capacity to interpret the constitution. If needed, the court is a judicial and moral reserve of the republic.”

Cabello said it is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether or not to change the date of the inauguration, according to El Nacional, which cited comments he made to journalists after a nationally televised address in which he dismissed speculation that any such change was being considered by Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Cabello added that in his personal opinion it’s unfair to disregard the views of 8 million people who voted for Chavez in presidential elections in October by not allowing him to take office if he’s not back by the scheduled inauguration date, the Caracas-based newspaper reported.

Conflicting Statements

“We don’t have any other scenarios,” Cabello said on state television on Dec. 18. “There is a date established in the constitution. We want the president to recover and be healthy, and God willing, that’s how it will be.”

Chavez, 58, suffered a respiratory infection this week after having his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last week, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a national address on Dec. 18. Chavez is in stable condition, Villegas said.

Maduro said yesterday that Chavez’s health is improving with each day and that he hoped the President would recover in time for the Jan. 10 inauguration.

“We have a very complete constitution, and we will continue to follow it,” Maduro said. “It wouldn’t be good to start speculation. We’re certain that we’re heading toward the best scenario and we will work for that.”

The former paratrooper first told Venezuelans he had cancer in June 2011 after undergoing surgery in Cuba to drain an abscess from his pelvic area. During the surgery, doctors discovered a baseball-sized tumor in the same area, he said.

Chavez said Dec. 9 that Venezuelans should elect Maduro as his successor if he is prevented from completing the third, six-year term he won in elections in October. Chavez may not be well again in time to be sworn in for a third term on the scheduled inauguration date, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Dec. 12.

Power Vacuum

“If the absence is temporary, the president of the National Assembly should assume the presidency so there’s no power vacuum and then swear in the president-elect when the temporary absence ends,” Jorge Pabon, a constitutional lawyer and former dean of the law school at the Central University of Venezuela, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “If the absence is absolute, he must call an election and take office in that period.”

Maduro said the government remains united behind Chavez.

“We have sworn loyalty to Chavez and to building a profound brotherhood among us, to preempt intrigues and accompany Chavez in his recovery,” Maduro said yesterday. “It’s superior to the political issue, it’s a spiritual union.”

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