UPDATE 1-Venezuela opposition furious over likely Chavez inauguration delay

Brian Ellsworth
Reuters Middle East

* Chavez still recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba

* President seen too ill to return for swearing-in

* Government says he will take office when health allows

CARACAS, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition has

accused the government of violating the constitution by

proposing to delay cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez's

inauguration Thursday for a new term amid growing uncertainty

over the polarized OPEC nation's political future.

The socialist leader's allies say the Jan. 10 inauguration

date laid out in the constitution is just a "formality." They

insist Chavez, who has not been heard from for almost a month

after complex cancer surgery in Cuba, can take office when his

health allows.

His adversaries say that would be running roughshod over the

constitution as the former soldier remains in Havana and appears

too weak to return to Venezuela after winning re-election in

October for a third six-year term.

"If the president of the republic does not take office (on

Jan. 10), the country cannot be left in a power vacuum," said

Tomas Guanipa of the opposition Justice First party, insisting

that the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, should be sworn in


The dispute centers on an article of the constitution that

says a president-elect should be sworn in on Jan. 10, but does

not say what happens if the inauguration does not take place

that date.

A fierce debate over the issue has deflected attention from

the president's absence from the political scene and apparent

inability to speak in a live broadcast.

The government, which has refused to discuss having Chavez

temporarily step aside as he recovers, is providing only terse

statements with bare-bones details of his condition.

On Monday, the information minister said Chavez's condition

was "stationary" with respect to the last medical bulletin,

released on Thursday, which described a "severe" pulmonary

infection that has hindered the president's breathing.

The official position is that Chavez is still fulfilling his

duties as head of state, despite his weak health.

For days, television networks have aired contrasting

interpretations of the constitutional articles in question, with

the opinions of constitutional lawyers and ad-hoc experts now

filling social networks.

A Justice First leader has said the opposition could file

complaints against the government with international agencies

over the potential violation of constitutional protocol.

A popular political cartoonist depicted what appeared to be

a wolf running with a copy of the constitution in its mouth,

leaving a trail of pages behind it.

The opposition's Democratic Unity coalition has been holding

meetings to hash out a unified stance on the issue.

One Chavez critic who called for a national strike via

Twitter to protest the situation was ridiculed by the opposition

as an extremist but quickly cited by the government as a sign

that Chavez's critics want to destabilize the country.


"There is nothing here that would create a power vacuum and

nothing that should give (the opposition) hope that Chavez will

leave (office) on Jan. 10," said Cabello, a top Chavez ally and

a leader of the ruling Socialist Party, at a press conference.

He called on supporters to hold street rallies in support of

Chavez on Thursday but would neither confirm nor deny the

president would be in Venezuela by then. He said several Latin

American presidents would be present.

In Argentina, a government spokesman said President Cristina

Fernandez would travel to Cuba late this week, as part of a trip

that includes stops in the Middle East and Asia, and would seek

to visit Chavez.

An aide to Brazil's president, consulted on the situation in

Venezuela, said he thought the process was being carried out

according to the constitution.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to

Chavez in the October election, said the obsession over Chavez's

health had left government frozen and unable to take action.

"The truth is that we have a government that doesn't govern,

completely paralyzed!" Capriles said via his Twitter account.

"These pseudo-leaders are not interested in the problems that

Venezuelans face."

Twitter is alight with rumors that the president is nearly

at death's door and that the government has not released

pictures of him to avoid revealing his physical deterioration.

If he died or had to step aside, new elections would be

called within 30 days with Vice President Nicolas Maduro,

Chavez's heir apparent, running as the Socialist Party


Maduro for the last month has stepped in to fill the void

left by Chavez, mimicking his style of bombastic speeches and

televised appearances for ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

On Monday, he marked the start of the school year by reading

children's books at a public school in a stilted imitation of

Chavez's frequent informal visits to social programs or

state-run factories.

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