Venezuela's National Assembly will hold its first session of 2013 Saturday and immediately face a delicate but pressing issue: What to do about the upcoming inauguration of President Hugo Chavez?
Chavez is due to be sworn in for his fourth six-year term in office on Jan. 10, but the 58-year-old hasn’t been seen since he had cancer surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11. Rumors are swirling that he’s seriously ill or dying.
Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, told USA Today that the National Assembly will need to decide whether to delay Chavez’s inauguration or allow the Supreme Court to swear him in, which the constitution permits.
On Thursday, Venezuela's information minister said Chavez suffered a severe lung infection and respiratory deficiency, without specifying the kind of treatment he's receiving. GlobalPost's correspondent in Cuba says details have been impossible to come by.
"Cuban authorities have helped the Chavez government keep lock-tight control over information about the gravity of the president's condition," GlobalPost's Nick Miroff says. "Cuba's state media has been dutifully reporting the official updates being given by the Venezuelan government, but nothing has leaked out from the Havana hospital where Chavez is being treated."
Miroff says ordinary Cubans are in as much suspense as Venezuelans, fearing Chavez's demise could trigger fuel shortages, power blackouts and austerity measures on the island.
"Taxi drivers, store clerks and vegetable peddlers have suddenly become experts on the minutiae of Venezuelan politics, arguing about contingency scenarios in the Venezuelan constitution, or Vice President Maduro's chances against opposition leader Henrique Capriles in an emergency election," Miroff adds.
Postpone the inauguration?
It’s unclear whether the date of the swearing-in ceremony is negotiable or whether it can take place outside Venezuela, CNN reported.
Felix Roque, a constitutional lawyer, told state-run VTV this week that the Supreme Court justices can perform the inauguration at the Venezuelan Embassy in Cuba if required, CNN reported. But constitutional lawyer Jose Vicente Haro told CNN en Espanol that won’t work because "it is not Venezuelan territory.”
If Chavez cannot be sworn in by Jan. 10, lawmakers could declare him temporarily absent from office, and have another official babysit the presidency for up to 180 days, CNN reported.
Lawmakers could also declare Chavez permanently absent from office. If that happens, or if he dies before Jan. 10, Vice President Nicolas Maduro would finish out his current term. The head of Venezuela's National Assembly would take over as president until new elections were held, which must occur within 30 days.