Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, saying on the recommendation of Chavez’s medical team, his recovery process “should be extended beyond Jan. 10” and for that reason he won’t be able to attend Thursday’s scheduled inauguration.
Tensions between the government and opposition have been building in a constitutional dispute over whether the ailing president’s swearing-in can legally be postponed. The president underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last month and hasn’t spoken publicly in a month.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said earlier Tuesday that Chavez’s current term constituionally ends Thursday and that the Supreme Court should rule in the matter.
Other opposition leaders have argued that the inauguration cannot legally be put off and that the National Assembly president should take over as interim president if Chavez hasn’t returned from Cuba on inauguration day.
“The Supreme Court has to take a position on what the text of the constitution says,” said Capriles, who lost to Chavez in presidential elections three months ago. “There is no monarchy here, and we aren’t in Cuba.”
However, Capriles said he saw no reason to bring a formal challenge to the Supreme Court because it was obliged to issue a rulling on the dispute.
While leaders of both pro- and anti-Chavez camps say they don’t expect violence to break out Thursday, the dispute could lead to opposition questions about the legitimacy of government officials serving past the scheduled inauguration date.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10 but adds that the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he’s unable to be sworn in before the assembly. Government officials argue that clause does not explicitly mention a date, though opponents say it clearly refers to the Jan. 10 deadline.
Maduro has called the swearing-in a “formality” and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution. Chavez has said that if he’s unable to continue on as president, Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him.
Capriles noted, however, that Maduro “wasn’t elected” to continue leading a government in Chavez’s absence into a new term. “If Maduro wants to be president, it’s not through that way,” Capriles said.
He added Tuesday that he has spoken with members of the military, and that they have told him “we are with the constitution.”
“The Armed Force also has a role to play to play here ... of respecting the constitution,” Capriles said, without elaborating, while using the military’s formal name.