CARACAS -- Languishing in a Cuban hospital, recovering from cancer surgery marred by complications, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez hasn’t been seen or heard from in almost a month.
Thursday, the 58-year-old firebrand is scheduled to be sworn in before the National Assembly to start a new six-year term.
Will he? Won’t he? Is he on his death bed? Rallying as he has after past medical procedures?
Nobody seems to know — or, if they know, they aren’t saying.
It’s a major political potboiler that has jangled the nerves of this country.
The inauguration — and exactly how it will be pulled off if Chávez fails to make an appearance — has sparked a national debate about who should be in charge of Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.
Some constitutional scholars and opposition voices say that if Chávez fails to appear, the head of the National Assembly must take control and oversee new elections within 30 days. But government supporters say the constitution, which Chávez helped overhaul in 1999, gives them the ability to stop the clock and buy their ailing leader more time to recover.
On Saturday, shortly after he was reelected to head the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, a staunch Chávez ally, said any talk of new elections to replace el comandante is tantamount to a coup.
“Chávez has been elected and will be president after Jan. 10. Let no one doubt that,” he told the packed legislature as he was sworn in. “We are going to enforce the constitution; get that in your head.”
Cabello — a former military officer who participated with Chávez in a failed 1992 coup — argues that the Supreme Court can swear-in Chávez anywhere and anytime. That has conjured up images of the high court traveling to Havana for a bedside inauguration.
But Cecilia Sosa Flores, chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1996 to 1999, said the constitution is clear: the new president has to take office on Jan. 10 — on Venezuelan soil.
“If Chávez isn’t sworn in on Jan. 10, he is not president on the 11th,” she said. She said the ruling party is hoping to bend the law to keep its leader in power at all costs.
“What we have here is dogma,” she said. “Chávez will govern whether he is sick; Chávez will govern even if he’s unconscious.”
After handily winning reelection in October, Chávez traveled to Cuba last month to undergo a fourth round of surgery to treat an undisclosed form of cancer that started in his pelvis. Since going under the knife Dec. 11, he hasn’t been seen or heard from, which has driven speculation that he’s taken a turn for the worse. On Thursday, officials admitted he was fighting a “severe pulmonary infection” and was having trouble breathing, but said his condition was stable.
Before heading to the island, Chávez asked authorities to call new elections if he was unable to take office, and called on the nation to back Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
The constitution requires elections within 30 days if the president is permanently incapacitated, steps down, is impeached or dies. But Chávez’s tenuous health might allow the administration to delay the vote, said José Vicente Haro, a professor of constitutional law at the Andres Bello Catholic University.