CARACAS, Venezuela – The nerves of Venezuelans are sure to be tested in the coming week as the country seeks answers not only to the mystery of President Hugo Chavez’s medical condition and prognosis but also to the debate over constitutional requirements should he be unable to take the oath of office on Thursday to start a fourth term.
On Saturday, Chavez 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 Chavez, should the fiery socialist die or be deemed “permanently incapacitated.”
Chavez has not been seen or heard from 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 Thursday inauguration.
After being re-elected to his assembly post by his fellow lawmakers, Cabello said Chavez 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.
Constitutional law expert Carlos Ayala agreed that Chavez 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 that Chavez 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 Chavez is so ill that he cannot competently carry out his duties, then 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 Chavez 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 announced last week that Chavez was experiencing “respiratory insufficiency,” raising the possibility that Chavez is on a respirator or even comatose.
Luis Salamanca, a constitutional law expert at Central University of Venezuela, said “reading between the lines” of official announcements “verifies that things are getting worse.”
Some opposition figures are openly questioning why the Chavez government has not decided to seek a postponement of the swearing-in under a “temporary incapacitation” provision if, in fact, Chavez’s prognosis is one of recovery and not imminent death.
Although Chavez 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 Chavez successor, including Maduro or Cabello.