“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.”