The government’s decision to postpone the inauguration of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as he remains in Cuba battling cancer has prompted furious accusations from the opposition that it is violating the constitution.
However, government officials have argued that the inauguration can legally take place at a later date before the Supreme Court. It is unclear what, if anything, the opposition can do to prevent the delay given courts perceived as being pro-government, public sympathy for Chavez and varying interpretations of an at-times vague constitution.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Chavez would not be able to attend the scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello on Tuesday.
Later that day, Venezuela’s National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez’s allies, approved the proposal for Chavez to be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court.
The news sparked passionate debate in the assembly, with the opposition coalition arguing that if he is not sworn in today, Chavez must temporarily step aside and let Cabello assume the presidency.
“What I won’t do is put people to fight against people,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles told reporters. “Our country doesn’t need hate. Our country doesn’t need fights.”
At the heart of the dispute are differing interpretations of Venezuela’s constitution, which says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10. However, the charter adds that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court.
Opponents argue that even if the oath is taken before the Supreme Court, it should be on Jan. 10. Chavez’s allies argue that the charter does not explicitly specify on what day it must take place.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected a legal challenge brought by an individual lawyer, Otoniel Pautt Andrade, who had argued that it would violate the constitution for Cabello to refuse to assume the presidency provisionally if Chavez were unfit to be sworn in on the set date.
Opposition lawmaker Omar Barboza urged Chavez’s allies to accept Cabello as interim president while Chavez recovers, saying that this was to avoid an “institutional crisis.”
Barboza said it was clear that a “temporary absence” should now be declared, which would give the president 90 days to recover, and which could be renewed for another 90 days.
Constitutional law expert Henrique Sanchez Falcon, a professor at Central University of Venezuela, called the government’s position “something that’s absolutely contrary to what’s established under the constitution, which says that the term lasts six years.”
Meanwhile, Capriles urged Latin American leaders not to come to Venezuela, asking them to instead demand that the Venezuelan constitution be upheld.
The governments of Bolivian President Evo Morales and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica announced that the leaders would travel to Caracas, where the Venezuelan government said various Latin American leaders were expected to attend a gathering today.