Venezuela's vice president says Hugo Chavez can continue as president -- even if he is unable to be sworn in for a new term on January 10 because of his struggle to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said the constitution permits the president to continue in office through his illness and be sworn in for a new six-year term by the Supreme Court at a later date.
Maduro rejected the opposition's position that the speaker of the National Assembly must temporarily take over the presidency if Chavez cannot be sworn in January 10, the date set in the constitution.
Chavez has not been seen in public nor heard from since he underwent his fourth surgery for cancer on December 11.
Venezuela’s government said January 3 that Chavez, 58, is suffering from a “severe” respiratory infection that has complicated his recovery in a Havana hospital.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, new elections must be held if the president dies or becomes permanently incapacitated before he or she takes office.
Some legal experts say the constitution does not clearly establish what should happen if the president-elect does not take the oath of office before the National Assembly on January 10, but is not judged to be permanently incapacitated.
The opposition argues that if Chavez remains in Cuba on January 10, when he should be inaugurated, it is equivalent to him stepping down from the office.
Earlier this week, opposition leaders accused the government of failing to tell the full truth about Chavez’s illness.
Officials have so far declined to give details about what form of cancer Chavez has been diagnosed with in his pelvic region.
Holding a small copy of the constitution, Maduro appeared on state-run television January 4 and argued the constitution would permit the Supreme Court to swear in Chavez at an unspecified future date.
Maduro also called on the opposition to remember that Chavez is a sitting president who was reelected in a democratic vote.
Maduro said Chavez is in a “complex” medical situation. But he gave no additional details about the president’s health
"President Chavez is today in a complex, important battle and we, with all our hearts, with all of our energy, with all of our prayers, are putting all our strength into having him in Venezuela, earlier rather than later, at the moment he and the doctors determine," he said.
Chavez, the dominant figure in the politics of OPEC-member Venezuela for the past 14 years, was reelected in October.
Before leaving for Cuba for the latest round of surgery, the Socialist leader told Venezuelans that Maduro would take over if he is incapacitated. Chavez also urged supporters to vote for Maduro if a new election must be held.
A frequent critic of U.S. policy, Chavez has sought to forge alliances with countries including Iran and Belarus. His government has purchased significant quantities of Russian weapons for Venezuela's armed forces.
Based on reporting from Reuters, AFP and AP