President Hugo Chavez, who has not been seen publicly in a month since undergoing a complex cancer surgery in Cuba, will not be back in Venezuela on Thursday to be sworn in for a fourth term, his government announced Tuesday.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a letter read on national television that Chavez would extend his “post-surgery recovery process beyond Jan. 10 of this year,” the date on which the constitution says the president should be inaugurated before the country’s legislature.
“Because of this he will not be able to appear on that date before the National Assembly,” said the letter, which was read before lawmakers by the president of the assembly, Diosdado Cabello. The letter went on to say that the circumstances of Chavez’s absence trigger application of a constitutional article permitting him to take the oath at a later, undetermined date.
The largely mysterious absence of the firebrand leader has created an increasingly tense political climate in this oil-rich country, with government opponents arguing that the constitution calls for an interim president to take over should Chavez be unable to continue in office. But the president’s supporters have argued that because Chavez was reelected in October, there is “continuity” from one term to the next, making the inauguration a mere formality.
“We from the revolutionary bloc say to the president, ‘Take your time, so you can come back in good health to Venezuela,’ ” Elvis Amoroso, a Chavez ally in the National Assembly, said soon after the letter from Maduro was read. “Your people are waiting for you.”
With little information filtering out about Chavez’s health, however, many in Venezuela are wondering whether he will ever return. Since June 2011, Chavez has had four cancer surgeries, though Venezuelans still have not been told what kind of cancer he has, exactly where in his body the cancerous tissue was detected or what the prognosis for recovery is.
Carlos Ayala, a Caracas-based constitutional lawyer, said that if the president cannot take office, then the head of the National Assembly, Cabello, would become the interim leader.
Elections could be called, or Chavez could be sworn in later. But Ayala said that a medical board would have to be formed to publicly determine the state of Chavez’s health.
“Everything would be cleared up if there were complete, honest information on Hugo Chavez’s health,” Ayala said. “The question is, why not follow the constitutional route?”