CARACAS -- Waving blue constitutions and red banners, tens of thousands of supporters of President Hugo Chávez crammed the streets of downtown Caracas amid growing questions about when, if ever, the ailing leader will return from Cuba.
The event, marking the beginning of a new six-year term for the cancer-stricken Comandente, fell on the one-month anniversary since the public last saw or heard from him. His absence has fueled accusations that the administration is trampling the constitution by not transferring power to the head of the National Assembly until Chávez returns.
But amid the surging crowds on the street, many said it was the opposition that’s twisting the law to try to sideline a president they’ve never been able to defeat at the polls.
“Those people [the opposition] are trying to make up their own rules,” said José Torres Alba, a 32-year-old baker who traveled 12 hours to be at the event. “We’re here to show them that the nation is behind Chávez and that we’ll defend the constitution.”
As military jets roared overhead, supporters sang and danced in the streets carrying banners that read “I am Chávez.” Aside from a months-old recording of Chávez singing the national anthem, the crowd didn’t hear from their president.
The rally came the day after the Supreme Court ruled that the 58-year-old leader has the right to stay out of the country “indefinitely” and can be sworn-in before the court whenever he recovers. It also said he was still in charge of the nation and there was no need to send a medical team to evaluate his health, as opponents had requested. That leaves Vice President Nicolás Maduro — whom Chávez appointed in October — as the de-facto leader of the nation.
On Thursday, Maduro downplayed his role, saying Chávez was the only president and that he and the rest of the cabinet were “simple men and women of the people who are here to accompany him and work for him.”
“We will do what we need to, but always subordinate to him,” he said.
In a news conference on the other side of town, a bloc of opposition deputies said it was a sham to pretend that Chávez is still in charge when he’s been incommunicado since Dec. 10, and didn’t even sign the letter informing congress he would not be able to attend the inauguration.
The government has provided almost daily updates on the president’s health, and Maduro says he has talked to the president at length, but there’s no independent way to verify his status, said opposition deputy Alfonso Marquina.
“If the president has talked to Vice President Nicolás Maduro for more than 20 minutes, why hasn’t [Chávez] had the decency to talk to Venezuelans, even for just a minute, over the telephone?” he asked.
The opposition is calling for a march Jan. 23 to protest what they see as a usurpation of power.
On Thursday, Maduro didn’t provide any new details about Chavez’s condition.
“As you know, he’s in the midst of a battle,” Maduro told the crowd. “But Commander, relax, you have a Bolivarian government and a revolutionary nation behind you, and the National Armed Forces are solid.”
Maduro also tried to put to rest rumors that he and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello are fighting for control.
“They say Diosdado and I are killing each other,” he said as he hugged his colleague. “But we’re killing ourselves for the people and we’re killing ourselves for Chávez.”
Opposition leaders said they had asked foreign dignitaries not to participate in Thursday’s event, but almost 20 international delegations were in attendance, including the presidents of Nicaragua, Uruguay and Bolivia.
At times, the rally seemed more like a campaign than an act of international diplomacy. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega compared Venezuela’s opposition to “vultures” waiting for Chávez to die.
“They haven’t realized that they are the only carcass that exists,” Ortega said. “Here, the people are more alive than ever, more belligerent than ever and more combative than ever.”
Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, called Chávez “a light which illuminates the world, especially for the working people, the poor, the marginalized and those who suffer discrimination.”
When he called on the masses to obey Chávez’s orders and follow Maduro, the crowd broke out into chants of “Nicolás! Nicolás!”
Chávez won a fourth presidential term in October, beating Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles by 11 points. Two months later, he announced that he had a relapse of the undisclosed form of cancer he has been battling since 2011, and would return to Cuba for a fourth round of surgery.
The government has said he suffered hemorrhaging during the six-hour operation and that he has been fighting a “severe” pulmonary infection since. If he were to die or step down, the constitution requires elections within 30 days.
Before leaving, Chávez asked the nation to rally behind Maduro if new elections are triggered.
But on Thursday, few Chavistas seemed willing to contemplate that scenario.
“We’re here to support the health of the president and ask for his recovery,” said Alcira Gonzalez, 49, who traveled from Maracaibo to the rally. “If, God forbid, the president can’t come back then we’ll have to support Maduro because Chávez asked us to.”