Health of Chavez spurs questions on oath of office

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez is due to be sworn in for a new term in less than a week, and his closest allies still aren’t saying what they plan to do if the ailing leader is unable to return from a Cuban hospital to take the oath of office.

Mr. Chavez hasn’t been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 cancer surgery, and speculation has grown that his illness could be reaching its final stages.

The president’s elder brother, Adan, joined a parade of visitors to Havana this week, while the vice president apparently delayed plans to return home after at least two bedside visits with Mr. Chavez.

The government has provided few details but describes Mr. Chavez’s condition, after complications due to a respiratory infection, as “delicate.”

His health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan. 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed, whether Supreme Court justices might travel to Havana to administer the oath of office, and, most of all, what will happen if Mr. Chavez can’t begin his new term.

The main fault lines run between Mr. Chavez’s backers and opponents.

But while the president’s allies so far appear united, analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s chosen successor and vice president, and Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly who is thought to wield power within the military and who would be in line to temporarily assume the presidency until a new election can be held.

Mr. Cabello has dismissed rumors of any discord within the socialist party, and issued a Twitter message on Wednesday asserting “the unbreakable will of revolutionary unity.”

“We Chavistas are very clear on what we will do,” he said in another message, telling the opposition it should “take care of what you all will do.”

But as of Thursday, the plans of Mr. Chavez’s allies remained a mystery.

The Venezuelan constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, and officials have raised the possibility that Mr. Chavez might not be well enough to do that, without saying what will happen if he can’t.

Mr. Chavez said before his fourth cancer-related operation that, if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Mr. Maduro should finish his current term and be his party’s candidate to replace him in a new election.

The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly, who is now Mr. Cabello. It says a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days.

Opposition leaders have argued that Mr. Chavez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in October, seems no longer fit to continue as president, and have demanded that a new election be held within 30 days if he isn’t in Caracas on Inauguration Day.

But some of Mr. Chavez’s close confidants dismiss the view that the inauguration date is a hard deadline, saying he could be given more time to recover from his surgery if necessary.

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