Chavez Delays Oath as Opponents Say He Should Cede Power

Ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won’t be sworn in for a new term tomorrow, plunging the nation into an institutional crisis as the opposition called for the self-declared socialist to cede power temporarily as he recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, in a letter sent to lawmakers last night, said Chavez has requested more time to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba and won’t attend a scheduled Jan. 10 inauguration. Instead, the Supreme Court will administer the oath at a “later date” as allowed by the charter in exceptional circumstances, according to the letter.

Chavez’s fragile health has heightened uncertainty in South America’s largest oil producer, with the opposition claiming National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello should act as caretaker president while Chavez recuperates. The Supreme Court today backed the government’s position, saying the nation’s charter allows for Chavez to postpone his swearing-in and that he and Vice President Nicolas Maduro can continue exercising power even if he doesn’t assume a new term on the date specified by the constitution.

“Who’s governing Venezuela?,” Julio Borges, head of the Justice First party, asked in a heated parliamentary debate yesterday in which he and other opposition deputies accused the government of riding roughshod over the nation’s laws. That prompted Cabello to lead the government majority in shouting “Chavez, Chavez, Chavez” and waving pocket copies of the constitution in response.

“With these chants you want to cover up the fact that you are violating the constitution,” Borges responded.

‘Constitutional Cliff’

Venezuelan bonds fell for a fourth day as the country edges toward what Barclays Plc called a “constitutional cliff.” The yield on the country’s benchmark 9.25 percent bond due 2027 has tumbled 4.38 cents since Dec. 3 to 99.76 cents on the dollar at 2:13 p.m. in Caracas, cutting into a 46 percent rally over the past year for Venezuelan debt as investors boosted bets the Chavez’s battle with cancer will lead to a leadership change.

As Chavez, 58, struggles to recover in a Havana hospital from a respiratory infection prompted by a fourth cancer-related surgery since 2011, government officials and opposition leaders yesterday intensified their attacks.

While Cabello accused the opposition of plotting a repeat of the 2002 military coup that briefly ousted Chavez, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski said the government was violating Venezuela’s constitution and international commitments that could lead to “anarchy”.

“This isn’t a monarchy, and we aren’t in Cuba,” Capriles, 40, said during a news conference in Caracas in which he held out the prospect of an army uprising if the constitution is breached.

Risk of Anarchy

Capriles appealed to the Supreme Court to resolve the impasse, arguing that Chavez’s current term constitutionally ends Jan. 10 and Maduro can’t legitimately run the government on his behalf after that date as the government intends.

“A wrong decision by the Supreme Court, far from guaranteeing peace and tranquility, could lead to anarchy instead,” Capriles said.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said this week that Chavez’s condition remains stable after the government reported he had trouble breathing as a result of a respiratory infection. He didn’t provide additional details.

Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October by 11 percentage points, said the opposition may appeal to international tribunals and regional powers such as Brazil to resolve the political crisis. He called on leaders in Latin America not to take sides in the dispute and instead insist that Venezuelan law be respected.

U.S., Brazil

Bolivian President Evo Morales and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica are among regional allies expected to gather in Caracas Jan. 10 for a government-sponsored rally. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated yesterday that issues of succession in Venezuela need to be resolved domestically in a transparent manner involving all political actors. The top foreign policy aide to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said he sees no danger of the constitutional order being ruptured.

Chavez hasn’t been seen publicly in a month, and his prolonged absence has heightened tensions in a country already battered by a currency crisis, 20 percent inflation and a shortage of basic goods such as toilet paper and corn flour.

The government yesterday ordered security forces to step up inspections of supermarkets and producers to ensure food supplies and prevent hoarding. Authorities this week confiscated 9,000 tons of sugar, part of which was imported by a supplier to the local unit of PepsiCo Inc., state news agency AVN said.

In downtown Caracas, some Chavez supporters expressed concern that the political fight could lead to violence in the coming days.

“Honestly, I’m confused,” Alexaida Ponce, a 31-year-old homemaker who said she voted for Chavez, said at Plaza Bolivar. “There could be a problem at any moment between Chavistas and the opposition due to protests.”

Carmen Montilla, a 40-year-old sales clerk at a cosmetics store in Caracas who supports the opposition said she feared the crisis is like “ a time bomb waiting to explode.”

“Hopefully the dust will settle in our direction, but we don’t know what will happen,” Montilla said. “We’re in the middle of a dark cloud.”

Amid the mounting uncertainty, Cabello was defiant.

Chavez “can be away as long as he wants,” he told lawmakers last night, shrugging off suggestions that the president’s failure to be sworn in was opening a political void in the country he’s governed since 1999.

“There’s no power vacuum,” Cabello said. “In Venezuela, there’s a vacuum of the opposition.”