Venezuelans hold their breath in preparation for the expected inauguration of President Hugo Chávez on Thursday.
While there is still no certainty that the cancer-stricken Chávez will be able to attend, his supporters have planned a massive rally while political opponents ready themselves for a constitutional battle. And the Catholic Church, stuck in the middle of the controversy, finds itself in the middle of a potentially highly volatile situation.
The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk.
- Bishop Diego Padron, president of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference
Chávez is in a "stable situation" in a Cuban hospital receiving treatment due to a severe respiratory infection, his government said Monday.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas provided the update, saying the government is in "permanent contact" with Chávez's medical team and relatives who are with him in Havana where he underwent surgery for cancer. His report came as other government officials reiterated their stance that the president need not be sworn in for a new term as scheduled this Thursday and could instead have his inauguration at a later date.
"The president is in a stable situation in relation with that described in the most recent report," Villegas said, reading a statement on television. "His treatment is being applied constantly and rigorously, and the patient is assimilating it."
Villegas didn't give details about the treatment, which the government says is for a "respiratory deficiency." Independent medical experts say that description suggests Chávez may be breathing with the aid of a ventilator, but also say that is not necessarily the case based on the vague account given.
Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church on Monday criticized the government for failing to provide more details about Chávez's condition nearly a month after his operation.
"The government hasn't told the nation all of the truth," said Bishop Diego Padron, president of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference.
Catholic leaders also said that conflicting stances by the government and opposition ahead of Chávez's scheduled swearing-in make for a potentially dangerous and violent situation.
"The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk," Padron said, reading a statement from the bishops' conference.
Chávez describes himself as Christian but has clashed repeatedly with some Catholic leaders, who have accused the president in recent years of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
The leftist president hasn't spoken publicly since before the Dec. 11 surgery.
Government officials have called Chávez's condition delicate but haven't given details of his complications.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10, this Thursday. It says the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he's unable to be sworn in before the assembly.
Some opposition leaders have argued that Chávez's allies would violate the constitution if they try to put off the inauguration.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro has called the swearing-in a "formality" and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution.
Catholic leaders agreed with the opposition's arguments on Monday, saying the constitution is clear that one presidential term ends and another begins on Jan. 10.
"Altering the constitution to achieve a political goal is morally unacceptable," the Catholic leaders said, adding that they would oppose any attempts to manipulate the constitution to the "detriment of democracy."
The opposition announced over the weekend that it intends to raise its objections in international forums if Chávez's allies violate the constitution. But it remains unclear what the opposition intends to do if Chávez doesn't show up on inauguration day.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello warned the opposition not to try to stir up trouble. Speaking to reporters alongside Maduro on Monday, he called for the government's supporters to demonstrate in the streets of Caracas on Thursday.
Cabello also said at a news conference that some foreign leaders would soon visit Venezuela to express solidarity with Chávez. He didn't give details or identify the presidents.
But Cabello also avoided saying whether the inauguration was definitely being put off. Asked if the government now rules out Chávez being able to make it back on time for the inauguration, Cabello said: "We don't rule out absolutely anything at all."
Maduro reiterated the government's view that Chávez may be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. Referring to the Catholic Church's leaders, Maduro said he hopes they "maintain a conduct of respect."
Constitutional expert Roman Duque Corredor, a former Supreme Court magistrate, said the constitution is clear that Chávez's inauguration cannot legally be postponed.
Duque told The Associated Press he believes the Supreme Court should now form a board of doctors to determine the president's condition.
Marco Aurelio Garcia, the top international affairs adviser to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, visited Havana last week to obtain information about Chávez's health but said he was told that Chávez wasn't receiving visitors. Garcia told reporters on Monday in Brasilia he was told that Chávez is in a "grave state," according to Brazil's state news agency.
Garcia said he doesn't see political instability as likely in Venezuela, and that if Chávez is unable to return to Venezuela a temporary absence would be permitted for a total of up to 180 days under the constitution before it would be considered an absolute absence and require the calling of a new election.
Government officials also have urged people not to heed rumors about Chávez's health. Without giving details, Villegas said on Monday that people should ignore "messages of psychological warfare that from abroad that aim to disturb the Venezuelan family."
Some opposition politicians have also said it's time for a medical team to travel to Havana to determine whether Chávez is fit to remain in office or not.
"The step that's going to be taken on Jan. 10 is a very serious political step, because I think that from that date on Vice President Maduro becomes a spurious vice president, a vice president with little legitimacy," historian Margarita Lopez Maya said Monday during a forum organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She added that "if some type of message or address by President Chávez doesn't appear legitimizing this process, I think this will have a political cost" for Chávez's allies.
"As long as (Chávez) doesn't appear, it feels more and more like a government that's moving according to the particular interests of a clique that's surrounds the president's bed," Lopez Maya said.
She said it's difficult to grasp why Chávez's allies would want to delay new elections instead of taking advantage of public sympathy surrounding Chávez's condition now. But she said it might be that Chávez's confidants think it fitting for him to die as president and not have to leave office.
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center, said there also could be more practical political calculus at play.
"Chávez's absence is going to create a very strong emotional sensation for people, and perhaps they're postponing the elections to take advantage of that moment that's going to accompany Chávez's death," Arnson said.
Reporting by the Associated Press.