CARACAS, Venezuela — The nerves of Venezuelans will be tested this week as the country seeks answers not only to the mystery of President Hugo Chávez’s medical condition and prognosis but also to the debate over constitutional requirements should he be unable to take the oath of office Thursday to start a fourth term.
On Saturday, Chávez’ confidant and former army comrade Diosdado Cabello was re-elected as National Assembly president, a key position that would make him the leader in any process to call a new election to replace Chávez, should the fiery socialist die or be deemed “permanently incapacitated.”
Chávez has not been seen publicly since he left Venezuela in early December for Cuba, where he underwent his fourth surgery to treat pelvic cancer.
In sporadic and thinly detailed medical updates, officials have said he has encountered postoperative problems including “respiratory insufficiency” that have dimmed his chances of being present for his inauguration.
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After being re-elected to his assembly post by his fellow lawmakers, Cabello said Chávez does not need to be sworn in Thursday to retain his presidential powers because he has permission from the National Assembly to be absent from the country.
“If Chávez isn’t here by Jan. 10, the constitution establishes that he can be sworn in before the Supreme Court, although it doesn’t specify how or when,” Cabello said.
Constitutional-law expert Carlos Ayala agreed Chávez can be granted two oath-taking postponements for a total of 180 days in the event he is “temporarily incapacitated.”
But he said Venezuelans are entitled to proof Chávez is alive, is tending to his duties and has a positive prognosis.
“The citizenry has a legitimate right to know the facts surrounding the mental and physical condition of the head of state,” said Ayala, a professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “If he cannot exercise his duties and obligations under the constitution, then that leads to constitutional consequences.”
If he is so ill that he cannot competently carry out his duties, he could be declared “permanently incapacitated.”
That would trigger a constitutional requirement for the National Assembly president to call a new presidential election within 30 days, Ayala said.
On Friday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro — whom Chávez has designated as his political heir and preferred successor — said the 58-year-old president is “resting and recuperating” and emerging from what he previously said was a “delicate postoperative phase.”
But other pronouncements have been less positive. Communications and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said last week that Chávez was experiencing “respiratory insufficiency,” raising the possibility he is on a respirator or even comatose.
Political consultant and commentator Ricardo Sucre said the Chávez government seems to be trying to frame the Thursday oath-taking as a “mere formality.”
If that interpretation is accepted, it would enable the government to defer the constitutional requirement to clarify the president’s condition and, in a worst-case scenario, to avoid starting the wheels turning for a new presidential election.
Some opposition figures are openly questioning why the government has not decided to seek a postponement of the swearing-in under a “temporary-incapacitation” provision if his prognosis is one of recovery and not imminent death.
If Chávez is deathly ill, his successors will try to “draw out the process as long as possible to consolidate their power and take advantage of Chávez’s image to better appropriate it for themselves,” Sucre said.
Although Chávez won re-election last October in convincing fashion against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the chances of success in another election against Capriles are much less certain for any Chávez successor, including Maduro or Cabello.
Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College, said opposition politicians should be careful not to create the impression they are trying to gain power “on the possible disability or death of the leader they were unable to defeat in life.”
“There is no harm in letting the process unfold and waiting to see if Chávez regains his health or not,” Tinker Salas said. “The people of Venezuela freely elected Chávez in October 2012, and their decision on this matter should be respected.”