- Associated Press - Thursday, January 10, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela — Nothing showed the extent of Hugo Chavez’s grip on power quite as clearly as his absence from his own inauguration on Thursday.

Venezuela gathered foreign allies and tens of thousands of exuberant supporters to celebrate a new term for a leader too ill to return home for a real swearing in.

In many ways, Thursday’s ceremony looked like the sort of rally the anti-American president has staged scores of times throughout his 14 years in power.

Mr. Chavez’s face beamed from shirts, signs and banners. Adoring followers danced and chanted in the streets to music blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. Nearly everyone wore red, the color of his socialist Bolivarian Revolution movement, as the swelling crowd spilled from the main avenue onto side streets.

But this time, there was no president on the balcony of Miraflores Palace.

It was the first time in Venezuela’s history that a president has missed his inauguration, historian Elias Pino Iturrieta said.

“Perhaps it’s the first chapter of what they call Chavismo without Chavez,” Mr. Pino said of the symbolic street rally.

Yet in the crowd outside the presidential palace, many insisted that Mr. Chavez is still present in their hearts, testifying to his success in forging a tight bond of identity with millions of poor Venezuelans.

The crowd chanted: “We are all Chavez!” Some wore paper cutouts of the yellow, blue and red presidential sash.

“A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading,” said Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s designated successor.

Mr. Chavez, normally at the center of national attention, is so ill following a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba that he has made no broadcast statement in more than a month and has not appeared in a single photo. Officials have not specified what sort of cancer he suffers or which hospital is treating him.

Yet the opposition, limping off of two recent electoral defeats, seems powerless to challenge him effectively, and critics see their impotence in the battle over his new inauguration as an example of how Mr. Chavez has been able to ignore the constitution at whim.

Despite opposition claims that the constitution demands a Jan. 10 inauguration, the pro-Chavez congress approved delaying the inauguration. The Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed the postponement, saying the president could be sworn in before the court at a later date.

Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado called that decision a “well-aimed coup against the Venezuelan constitution” and echoed other critics’ suspicions that foreign allies are influencing events in Venezuela.

“It’s being directed from Cuba, and by Cubans,” she said.

Opposition leaders called for protests on Jan. 23, the anniversary of the of the country’s last dictatorship in 1958.

The government invited foreign leaders to add political weight to Thursday’s event, and they filled a stage in front of the presidential palace as Mr. Maduro addressed the crowd and called it a “historic event.”

A recording of Mr. Chavez singing the national anthem suddenly appeared, and his followers sang along. At the end, his voice boomed: “Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!”

Sitting beside Mr. Maduro were Presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Jose Mujica of Uruguay. The government said officials from about 20 other nations were on hand, including allies from a left-leaning bloc and others participating in a Chavez-launched program that supplies Venezuelan fuel under preferential terms.