CARACAS -- Huddled in a doorway outside the pink and red presidential palace, Alexis León said he has faith that its tenant, ailing President Hugo Chávez, will be home soon.
Government officials insist that Chávez is alert and speaking to his family as he recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba. But in Caracas — where he hasn’t been seen or heard from in more than a month — there’s little to do but worry and wait.
“If he was my family member, I would also keep him from making any public appearances until he was completely recovered — anything for his health,” said León, 51, a theater professor. “He’ll be back; we just have to give him time.”
But many wonder how long Latin America’s fourth-largest economy can function with its leader in absentia and incommunicado.
On Monday, the coalition of opposition parties, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, released letters sent to the Organization of American States and the Mercosur trade group asking them to weigh in on what they see as a violation of the constitution that could “affect the stability of the region.” The coalition also asked to make its case before the permanent council of the OAS.
Despite Chávez’s frail health, the Supreme Court insists he is still in charge. That means that Vice President Nicolás Maduro does not have the power to appoint ambassadors or cabinet members or sign international treaties, legal experts said.
“How long do we have to wait for the president?” asked Miriam Berdugo de Montilla, an opposition lawmaker. “Who can tell us where the president is? What condition is he in? Where are they keeping him? Nobody really knows.”
The government says Chávez is in Havana being treated by an international team of experts for an undisclosed form of cancer that he’s been battling since at least June 2011. On Sunday, officials said he was alert and reacting “favorably” to treatment for a severe respiratory infection that has plagued his recovery.
But there are reasons for concern. Last week, Chávez purportedly sent a letter to congress asking for permission to miss his Jan. 10 inauguration. But the letter was signed by Maduro, not the president. And when tens of thousands of Chávez followers crammed downtown Caracas to mark his new six-year term, there were no recorded messages from Havana, as many were hoping.
“Imagine President Barack Obama not being touch, not even a picture or proof of life for 35 days,” Russ Dallen, a Caracas-based investor and journalist told a panel in Washington, D.C. on Monday. “It’s an amazing, amazing scenario.”
To complicate matters, the Supreme Court has turned down requests to send a medical team to Havana, and no doctors or independent observers have commented on his status. When a Brazilian diplomat visited earlier this month he called the president’s condition “grave,” but provided no details. Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have also been recent visitors, but have remained mum about his condition.
The fact that the only people talking about the president’s health have a vested interest is suspicious, said Nelson Madrid, a 59-year-old music teacher who has lost confidence in the government reports.
“We need to hear from our president,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen we just have to hope it’s not bad.”
If Chávez were to die or step down, it should trigger new elections within 30 days. Before he traveled to Cuba, the president asked the nation to rally behind Vice President Maduro if he were sidelined by the illness. That would likely pit Maduro — a long time foreign minister — against Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in October.
But none of the president’s followers have openly acknowledged life after Chávez. And the Supreme Court ruling presumes not only that he’s in charge but will return to be sworn in.
The opposition argues that Chávez’s absence on inauguration day required the president to be declared temporarily absent and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, also another Chávez loyalist, to take charge until the president returns.
“The most troublesome part is that the [Supreme Court] has, astonishingly, declared President Chávez is not absent and is in full control of his functions even though he’s been out of the country for more than a month and not even in condition to sign an official communiqué,” the MUD wrote to Mercosur, the influential trade group, which Venezuela joined in July.
For its part, the administration has called the Supreme Court decision a victory for democracy in a nation that overwhelmingly supported Chávez in the Oct. 7 presidential race.
The ruling has left the opposition with little room for legal maneuvering, but they have called for a peaceful march on Jan. 23 in defense of the constitution.
The government seems prepared for a showdown. Shortly after the protest was announced, Maduro called on security forces to be vigilant and shutdown opposition attempts to instigate violence.
“They’re trying to stain our politics and the victories this nation is conquering every day,” Maduro said of the protest.
For the moment, the constitutional debate has caused few international ripples. More than 20 international delegations were in Venezuela last week to mark Chávez’s new six-year term. And the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department, among others, have said they respect the high court’s ruling.
But the longer the president is absent, the less tenable the situation will be, said Gregorio Gaterol, an opposition lawmaker.
“This Supreme Court sentence is a straightjacket for the opposition,” he said. “But over time, they’re going to get tied up in this decision also.”