* Chavez still recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba
* President seen too ill to return for swearing-in
* Government says he will take office when health allows
By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition has
accused the government of violating the constitution by
proposing to delay cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez's
inauguration Thursday for a new term amid growing uncertainty
over the polarized OPEC nation's political future.
The socialist leader's allies say the Jan. 10 inauguration
date laid out in the constitution is just a "formality." They
insist Chavez, who has not been heard from for almost a month
after complex cancer surgery in Cuba, can take office when his
His adversaries say that would be running roughshod over the
constitution as the former soldier remains in Havana and appears
too weak to return to Venezuela after winning re-election in
October for a third six-year term.
"If the president of the republic does not take office (on
Jan. 10), the country cannot be left in a power vacuum," said
Tomas Guanipa of the opposition Justice First party, insisting
that the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, should be sworn in
The dispute centers on an article of the constitution that
says a president-elect should be sworn in on Jan. 10, but does
not say what happens if the inauguration does not take place
A fierce debate over the issue has deflected attention from
the president's absence from the political scene and apparent
inability to speak in a live broadcast.
The government, which has refused to discuss having Chavez
temporarily step aside as he recovers, is providing only terse
statements with bare-bones details of his condition.
On Monday, the information minister said Chavez's condition
was "stationary" with respect to the last medical bulletin,
released on Thursday, which described a "severe" pulmonary
infection that has hindered the president's breathing.
The official position is that Chavez is still fulfilling his
duties as head of state, despite his weak health.
For days, television networks have aired contrasting
interpretations of the constitutional articles in question, with
the opinions of constitutional lawyers and ad-hoc experts now
filling social networks.
A Justice First leader has said the opposition could file
complaints against the government with international agencies
over the potential violation of constitutional protocol.
A popular political cartoonist depicted what appeared to be
a wolf running with a copy of the constitution in its mouth,
leaving a trail of pages behind it.
The opposition's Democratic Unity coalition has been holding
meetings to hash out a unified stance on the issue.
One Chavez critic who called for a national strike via
Twitter to protest the situation was ridiculed by the opposition
as an extremist but quickly cited by the government as a sign
that Chavez's critics want to destabilize the country.
"There is nothing here that would create a power vacuum and
nothing that should give (the opposition) hope that Chavez will
leave (office) on Jan. 10," said Cabello, a top Chavez ally and
a leader of the ruling Socialist Party, at a press conference.
He called on supporters to hold street rallies in support of
Chavez on Thursday but would neither confirm nor deny the
president would be in Venezuela by then. He said several Latin
American presidents would be present.
In Argentina, a government spokesman said President Cristina
Fernandez would travel to Cuba late this week, as part of a trip
that includes stops in the Middle East and Asia, and would seek
to visit Chavez.
An aide to Brazil's president, consulted on the situation in
Venezuela, said he thought the process was being carried out
according to the constitution.
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to
Chavez in the October election, said the obsession over Chavez's
health had left government frozen and unable to take action.
"The truth is that we have a government that doesn't govern,
completely paralyzed!" Capriles said via his Twitter account.
"These pseudo-leaders are not interested in the problems that
Twitter is alight with rumors that the president is nearly
at death's door and that the government has not released
pictures of him to avoid revealing his physical deterioration.
If he died or had to step aside, new elections would be
called within 30 days with Vice President Nicolas Maduro,
Chavez's heir apparent, running as the Socialist Party
Maduro for the last month has stepped in to fill the void
left by Chavez, mimicking his style of bombastic speeches and
televised appearances for ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
On Monday, he marked the start of the school year by reading
children's books at a public school in a stilted imitation of
Chavez's frequent informal visits to social programs or