Chavez to Stay in Power Even Without Taking Oath, VP Says

Ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will remain in power even if he fails to attend a ceremony next week in which he’s scheduled to be sworn in for another term, his Vice President Nicolas Maduro said.

Opponents of the socialist president, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, are distorting the constitution by saying that Chavez must show up for the Jan. 10 swearing-in ceremony or be declared ineligible to govern, Maduro said last night. The nation’s charter is flexible, and if needed the Supreme Court can set the date, manner and location Chavez will be sworn in for the third, six-year term he won in October by a landslide, he said.

“Chavez on that day remains in power and will be sworn in whenever possible,” Maduro said in an hour-long interview broadcast on state television, warning the opposition against trying to carry out a “coup” by interpreting to its advantage the charter’s provisions for a presidential succession. “The constitution speaks for itself.”

The comments by Maduro set the stage for a legal dispute with the opposition and signal that the ailing leader’s allies are unlikely to push him out of office even as calls for a snap election grow louder. Chavez hasn’t been seen in public since traveling to Havana Dec. 10 for his fourth surgery in 18 months, and government reports that he’s having trouble breathing as a result of a lung infection are fueling speculation that he’s unable to ever serve again.

Bond Rally

“It seems like the only way Chavez will step down is if he dies or he himself gives up power,” said Bret Rosen, who travels frequently to Venezuela as a Latin America strategist at Standard Chartered Plc in New York.

Venezuelan bonds have rallied over the past year, with yields on the state oil company falling to a record low this week, on speculation that Chavez won’t complete another term. Such a move would pave the way for an end of nationalizations, currency controls and other policies blamed for capital flight, food shortages and inflation of more than 18 percent.

Maduro, the president’s preferred successor, accused the opposition of carrying out a “dirty war” against Venezuela’s democracy by spreading rumors through fake Twitter accounts opened in officials’ names and sending letters to foreign diplomats warning of a government-staged coup if Chavez fails to return next week. Such actions could stir violence, he warned.

‘Playing With Fire’

“They’re playing with fire,” Maduro said, citing the risk of a repeat of street riots in Bogota that left hundreds dead following the murder in 1948 of Colombian presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan, a politician popular with that nation’s poor.

While Chavez’s condition remains “complex,” his respiratory infection is being treated and the president will appear again in public as soon as his doctors allow, Maduro said. In the meantime, he continues to stay abreast of affairs, and at the end of December made a phone call to Finance Minister Jorge Giordani to ask about the economy, he said.

Opposition leaders say that if the 58-year-old Chavez doesn’t attend next week’s inauguration, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, in compliance with the constitution, must decide whether his absence is a temporary or permanent one. The latter scenario would trigger an election within 30 days, but in either case Cabello must take over the presidency on a caretaker basis, they say.

Cabello was elected to remain as president of the assembly today.

“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. “Chavez was re-elected and will continue being president beyond Jan. 10.”

Forget Jan. 10

Ramon Jose Medina, deputy head of the opposition alliance, said Jan. 3 that Chavez’s failure to swear in on Jan. 10, without Cabello taking over the reins of the government, would constitute a government-staged “coup.”

Maduro last night said such an interpretation is “false,” echoing comments last month by Cabello -- his biggest rival in the Chavista camp -- that the opposition should “forget about January 10.” None of the conditions for the president’s “absolute absence” have been met, so long as Chavez remains alive, holds on to power and isn’t certified unfit to carry out his duties by a commission of medical experts working under lawmakers’ supervision, Maduro said.

“If the status quo continues January 10th you’re moving in the direction of a constitutional crisis,” said Rosen.

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