Questions revived about exactly who should lead Venezuela until next election

President Hugo Chávez won an additional six-year term in October but was never sworn in. When he died Tuesday, after an 18-month battle with cancer, it revived questions about exactly who should be in charge of this oil-rich nation until new elections can be held.

The constitution says that if a president dies before taking office, then the head of the National Assembly, in this case, Diosdado Cabello, should take charge and oversee elections within 30 days.

But on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua reiterated the administration’s contention that Vice President Nicolás Maduro will be acting president, even as he runs to keep the office.

The administration is relying on a Jan. 9 ruling by the Constitutional Court that said because Chávez was a sitting president, the swearing-in ceremony was a mere formality and could wait until he was healthy. Many suspected that there would be a bedside swearing-in when he was brought back to Caracas two weeks ago.

But it never happened. To complicate matters, congress has not convened to organize a temporary succession.

“The National Assembly needs to meet and declare the presidency ‘absolutely vacant’ and swear someone in,” said Jose Vicente Haro, a constitutional law expert. “This worries me, because there’s a lot of confusion right now.”

While Haro said the clock on new elections would not begin ticking until congress declares the vacancy, others said that Chávez’s death opened the 30-day window.

While these issues will likely remain a matter of debate among constitutional lawyers, the fact is the government has already made up its mind about having Maduro at the helm, said Cecilia Sosa Gomez, a former chief justice.

“But right now we are a country without anyone in charge,” she said. “They need to move quickly.”

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