U.S. Inauguration in Cuba a Precedent for Ailing Chavez

What does a constitutional showdown in Venezuela over ailing President Hugo Chavez’s month-long absence have in common with an obscure 19th century U.S. vice president? Cuba, of course.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court cited William R. King’s delayed swearing in as the 13th vice president of the U.S. in a ruling today backing the government’s position that Chavez’s inauguration for a new term, scheduled to take place tomorrow, can be postponed until he recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba.

King was elected on the Democratic ticket with Franklin Pierce in 1852 and took the oath of office on March 24, 1853 -- 20 days after the new government came to power -- while being treated in Cuba for tuberculosis. Thanks to an act of Congress he was legally vice president for those three weeks before he swore in. The parallels with Chavez are thin, as King’s delayed inauguration on foreign soil was a tribute to a dying man with little power, said U.S. presidential historian Anthony Bergen.

“The Venezuelans are grasping for whatever straws they can find,” Bergen, author of the book “Tributes and Trash Talk: What Our Presidents Said About Each Other,” said by phone from St. Louis. “Whatever happens with Chavez’s illness will really affect that country whereas King wasn’t replaced until the next term.”

Supreme Court Statement

Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales cited the case of King -- the highest-serving politician from Alabama in American history -- along with other international precedents to justify the court’s interpretation that the inauguration is just a formality. The constitution allows Chavez to remain in power even without being sworn in tomorrow for his third, six-year term, she said.

“In comparative law there have been many cases in which the swearing in of the president has been stripped of the ceremony that is sometimes given in these cases,” she said in a press conference today in Caracas.

Venezuela’s opposition insists that Chavez’s current term ends Jan. 10, and that his failure to show up for tomorrow’s inauguration means National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello must take power on an interim basis until the socialist leader recovers or an election is held.

The Venezuelan Supreme Court hasn’t said where, when or how Chavez can be sworn in. Otto Reich, a former U.S. Ambassador to Caracas before Chavez took power in 1999, said that the government may try to send a Supreme Court delegation to Cuba to swear in Chavez in his hospital room, according to an interview with the Newsmax.TV website yesterday.

Venezuelan constitutional experts said such a scenario, while illegal, is a possibility after today's ruling.

``It's absurd, but today's ruling opens the possibility'' of Chavez being sworn-in abroad, Jorge Pabon, a constitutional lawyer and former dean of the law school at the Central University of Venezuela, said today in a telephone interview. ``The branches of the national government can only exercise their authority inside the territory of the republic.''

The finale to King’s unusual inauguration on foreign soil may not be one that Chavez supporters wish to contemplate: three weeks after being sworn in and returning to the U.S., he was dead.

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