Chavez Allies Gather as Venezuela Leader Too Ill for Oath

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took a symbolic oath in Caracas in place of President Hugo Chavez, whose battle with cancer prevented him from attending his own inauguration to a third six-year term today.

Representatives from 27 countries, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo attended a government-organized rally in Caracas to express solidarity with the socialist leader, who is struggling to recover from his fourth cancer-related surgery last month in Havana. Other allies, including the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador, sent their foreign ministers.

The Supreme Court yesterday endorsed delaying Chavez’s swearing-in, saying that any such ceremony is a mere formality. The ruling means Chavez’s handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will continue to run affairs in South America’s biggest oil exporter for the foreseeable future.

While reaffirming Chavez’s uncontested leadership, Maduro also signaled he could take on new roles in government.

“Today as vice-president, minister, lawmaker, tomorrow whatever needs to be done,” Maduro, 50, told a crowd that stretched for at least a dozen street blocks from Miraflores presidential palace. “Whatever we need to do, it will always be subordinated to his orders.”

Protest March

Opposition leaders said they are planning a protest march Jan. 23 over what they consider a violation of Venezuela’s constitution.

“The magistrates of the Supreme Court made a decision that resolves a problem for the governing party,” Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October, said yesterday in Caracas. “But the ruling doesn’t clear up the uncertainty that exists in the country.”

Many supporters at the rally maintained high hopes the self-declared socialist will recover from a lung infection following his fourth cancer operation to retake the reins of power.

“We’ll wait for the comandante as long as is takes for him to come back,” said Valdimir Uribe, a 54-year-old health worker. “We know he’s sick but I’m sure he’ll be back.”

The rally spilled into side streets with spontaneous dancing to salsa music as jet fighters roared overhead - a sign of unity between the military and civil society, Maduro later said. Beauty queen Ivian Sarcos, who was crowned Miss World in 2011, stirred government supporters to sing along to a recording of Chavez belting out the national anthem.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica struck a more somber tone. “There’s a man who’s in your hearts. But if tomorrow he isn’t: unity, peace and work,” he said.

Bonds Rally

Venezuelan bonds gained for the first time in five days. The yield on the dollar bonds due 2027 fell 8 basis points or 0.08 percentage point to 9.20 percent. The price rose 0.66 cent to 100.39 cents on a dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Venezuelan bonds have rallied 46 percent over the past year as investors boosted bets the Chavez’s battle with cancer will lead to a leadership change.

The court did not specify in its ruling when, where or how Chavez should be sworn in, fueling speculation that justices could even fly to Havana to administer the oath at the president’s beside.

Foreign Soil

“It’s absurd, but the ruling opens the possibility” of Chavez being sworn-in on foreign soil, Jorge Pabon, a constitutional lawyer and former dean of the law school at the Central University of Venezuela, said in a phone interview.

Maduro led the crowd in a symbolic oath, pledging loyalty to Chavez and the constitution, as thousands clutched pocket-sized copies of the nation’s charter whose rewriting Chavez instigated in 1999 after first gaining power.

While Caribbean nations that receive subsidized Venezuelan oil and members of Chavez’s anti-American Bolivarian Alliance are backing the government, Brazil -- the region’s biggest diplomatic power -- stayed away from the festivities. The U.S. State Department yesterday reiterated its view that Venezuelans must resolve their political crisis in a fair and transparent manner.

Chavez’s fragile health remains the main driver of political events in Venezuela. The former paratrooper hasn’t been seen or heard from since traveling to Cuba a month ago. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said this week that his condition is stable after the government reported he had trouble breathing infection. He didn’t provide additional details.

Showcasing Maduro

Today’s event also sought to provide a boost to Maduro, who is seeking to consolidate support behind an eventual presidential candidacy should Chavez resign or die, either of which scenarios would trigger an election in 30 days. Chavez has endorsed Maduro as his successor.

Chavez’s longtime foreign minister has appeared several times a day on state television in recent weeks, ordering the national guard to seize producers it says are hoarding food supplies and promising to give “dolores,” the Spanish word for pain, not “dollars” to “bourgeoisie” businesses he accuses of trying to sabotage the economy.

The government has also stepped up attacks on the media. Yesterday it ordered Globovision to stop airing short segments on the constitution while it decides whether to fine the television network for spreading alarm among the population.

“Maduro is trying to be a clone of Chavez,” said Vicente Leon, director of Caracas-based polling company Datanalisis. “The problem is there’s no clone that can replicate what people feel for Chavez.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.