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Chavez will miss his swearing-in, raising questions from opposition

- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez won't be able to attend his scheduled swearing-in Thursday, Venezuela's government announced Tuesday, confirming suspicions that the leader's illness will keep him in a Cuban hospital past the key date.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello made the announcement during a legislative session while reading a letter from Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

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 the Supreme Court should rule in the disagreement between the opposition and Mr. Chavez's government. He said the constitution is clear that the current presidential term ends Jan. 10.

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Capriles, who lost to Mr. Chavez in presidential elections three months ago. "There is no monarchy here, and we aren't in Cuba."

Mr. Capriles said he sees no reason to bring a formal challenge to the Supreme Court because it is obliged to rule on the matter.

Mr. Chavez's allies have suggested the inauguration can be delayed past Thursday and carried out at a later date before the Supreme Court.

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 it adds that the president also may take the oath before the Supreme Court if he is unable to be sworn in before the assembly.

Officials argue that clause does not explicitly mention a date, though opponents say it clearly refers to the Jan. 10 deadline.

Mr. Maduro, the vice president, has called the swearing-in a "formality" and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution.

Mr. Chavez has said that if he is unable to continue on as president, Mr. Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him.

Mr. Capriles noted, however, that Mr. Maduro "wasn't elected" to continue leading a government in Mr. Chavez's absence into a new term.

"If Maduro wants to be president, it's not through that way," Mr. Capriles said, adding that he has spoken with various 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," Mr. Capriles said, without elaborating, using the formal name of the military.

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