CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez is due to be sworn in for a new term in less than a week and his closest allies still aren't saying what they plan to do if the ailing leader is unable to return from a Cuban hospital to take the oath of office.
Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 cancer surgery, and speculation has grown that his illness could be reaching its final stages. The president's elder brother Adan joined a parade of visitors to Havana this week, while the vice president apparently delayed plans to return home after at least two bedside visits with Chavez. The government has provided few details but describes Chavez's condition, after complications due to a respiratory infection, as "delicate."
His health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan. 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed, whether Supreme Court justices might travel to Havana to administer the oath of office, and, most of all, what will happen if Chavez can't begin his new term.
The main fault lines run between Chavez's backers and opponents.
But while the president's allies so far appear united, analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor and vice president, and Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly, who is thought to wield power within the military and who would be in line to temporarily assume the presidency until a new election can be held.
Cabello has dismissed rumors of any discord within the socialist party and issued a Twitter message on Wednesday asserting "the unbreakable will of revolutionary unity."
"We Chavistas are very clear on what we will do," he said in another message, telling the opposition it should "take care of what you all will do."
But as of Thursday, the plans of Chavez's allies remained a mystery.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly, and officials have raised the possibility that Chavez might not be well enough to do that, without saying what will happen if he can't.
Chavez said before his fourth cancer-related operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should finish his current term and be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly, who is now Cabello. It says a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days.
Opposition leaders have argued Chavez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in October, seems no longer fit to continue as president and have demanded that a new election be held within 30 days if he isn't in Caracas on inauguration day.
"On Jan. 10 the current presidential term ends and another begins," opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said Wednesday. "If the president-elect can't attend the swearing-in for reasons related to his health ... the president of the National Assembly should temporarily take charge of the presidency."
But some of Chavez's close confidants dismiss the view that the inauguration date is a hard deadline, saying Chavez could be given more time to recover from his surgery if necessary.
Cabello noted last month that the constitution says if a president is unable to be sworn in by the legislature, he may be sworn in by Supreme Court justices, who were appointed by the mostly pro-Chavez legislature.
"When? It doesn't say. Where? It doesn't say where," Cabello recently told a crowd of government supporters. His indication that the constitution does not specify where a president-elect should be sworn in by the Supreme Court has led to speculation that justices could travel to Cuba for the ceremony.
Opposition leaders chafe at the suggestion that Chavez could take office from a foreign country, saying the president made it clear before he left for the operation that his health was deteriorating by designating Maduro as his successor.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said the president's announcement revealed that he knew he would be not able to continue governing, but his allies have failed to accept it and have kept the state of Chavez's health a secret to avoid losing their grip on power.
"The only one who has not recently lied regarding this issue is Chavez, who said that he's very sick," Borges said. "He made it clear that we are nearing an election, for which he already chose his candidate."
Law professor Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, however, agrees with Cabello's view that the constitution is ambiguous regarding the time and place of a swearing-in ceremony before the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales said following Cabello's proposal last month that justices could rule on whether it's constitutional to postpone the date of the swearing-in ceremony. The issue has not yet been brought before the court, but Morales said Dec. 20 that the court could take up such issues if asked and would have the final word.
The constitutional conundrum facing the country has additional complexities, said Gonzalez, a constitutional scholar and professor at the Central University of Venezuela.
Before Chavez's inauguration date could be postponed, Gonzalez said, lawmakers would have to approve a 90-day extension of Chavez's "temporary absence" granted for his trip to Cuba for surgery. The president of the National Assembly would then be sworn in as an interim president for 90 days, Gonzalez said.
In order for that to occur, though, Gonzalez said the Supreme Court would need to appoint a panel of doctors to examine Chavez to determine whether his health could improve and whether he might be capable of continuing his duties as president.
"If a temporary absence is going to be declared, the medical team will have to determine that it's not about an absolute absence: That is to say that the president has the possibility of recuperating," Gonzalez said.
More than three weeks after Chavez's cancer surgery, government officials have been providing vague and shifting updates on his condition. Maduro announced over the weekend that Chavez had suffered complications due to a respiratory infection and was in "delicate" condition.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas released a letter Thursday saying the opposition-aligned television channel Globovision had erroneously referred to Maduro as the "acting president" and calling for a correction. Villegas said in Wednesday's letter to station Vice President Maria Fernanda Flores that he wanted to remind her "Hugo Chavez is the only president" in office.
Aveledo reiterated the opposition's demand for the government to provide a full medical report.
He said sending a medical team to Cuba to assess Chavez's condition would be an option, if necessary. In the meantime, he said, "There are two keys here to facing this and any situation, which are the truth and the constitution."
Some of the brewing disagreements could begin to be aired Saturday, when the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority, convenes to select legislative leaders. That session will be held just five days before an inauguration day that continues to be very much up in the air.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker