CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's Supreme Court chief said Wednesday that the upcoming inauguration of President Hugo Chavez can legally be postponed, siding with the government in a heated dispute with the opposition while the ailing leader struggles with complications a month after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales made the statement after the opposition urged the top court to rule that the government was violating the constitution by putting off the swearing-in for a new term, which had been scheduled for Thursday. Lawmakers voted Tuesday to delay the ceremony, allowing Chavez to take the oath of office at a later date before the Supreme Court.
Morales also said that the Supreme Court has not considered appointing a panel of doctors, as opposition politicians have demanded, to evaluate whether Chavez is fit to remain in office after remaining out of public view since Dec. 11.
While the opposition has not yet filed a formal court challenge to the delayed inauguration, Morales said she was announcing the decision in response to a request for a legal opinion by a woman she didn't identify. She said the inauguration can be performed before the Supreme Court, at a time and place to be determined.
"We know it's necessary, and undoubtedly the inauguration is going to be carried out, but at this time we can't anticipate when," Morales told reporters at a news conference.
The constitutional debate takes place against a backdrop of complaints that the government isn't giving complete information about the condition of Chavez, who hasn't spoken publicly since his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba four weeks ago.
"It's very evident that he isn't governing, and what they want us to believe is that he's governing, and they're lying," opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the Venezuelan television channel Globovision. He insisted that the National Assembly president should take over temporarily as interim leader and that the Supreme Court should appoint a panel of doctors to determine Chavez's condition.
Aveledo didn't say when or how the opposition planned to bring its challenge, and it was unclear how the opposition would respond to Morales' statement.
Venezuela's constitution says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10. But the charter adds that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court, without explicitly stating a date.
Opponents maintain that even if the oath is taken before the Supreme Court, it should be on Jan. 10.
The opposition has argued that the only legal way to postpone the ceremony is for congress to approve a "temporary absence" for the president, leaving the head of the National Assembly as interim president for 90 days, a period that could be extended for an additional 90 days.
But Morales said that as of now, "there is not even a temporary absence."
Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Chavez would not be able to attend the scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, which he announced he had received on Tuesday.
While leaders of both the pro- and anti-Chavez camps say they don't expect violence to break out Thursday, the government called for the socialist president's supporters to gather for a demonstration at the presidential palace that day, and said that some foreign leaders were coming to visit. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica have confirmed they will attend.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday also rejected a legal challenge brought by a lawyer, Otoniel Pautt Andrade, who had argued that it would violate the constitution for Cabello to refuse to assume the presidency provisionally if Chavez were unfit to be sworn in on the set date.
Chavez said before his operation that if he were unable to continue on as president, Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him. Speculation that his illness might be entering its final stages grew on Tuesday when the proposal for a postponement came in a letter signed by Maduro, not Chavez.
The government said earlier this week that Chavez was in a "stable situation" receiving treatment due to a severe respiratory infection. The government has said he is coping with "respiratory deficiency," but hasn't said how severe it is.
The stances of the government and the Supreme Court have been criticized by legal scholars such as Henrique Sanchez Falcon, a professor at Central University of Venezuela, who said the government's position "is absolutely contrary to what's established under the constitution, which says that the term lasts six years."
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was defeated by Chavez in October's presidential vote, suggested on Tuesday that the military "has a role to play to play here," though he did not give details.
Cabello, a retired officer, said later that he's sure the military wouldn't join with the opposition.
On Tuesday night, state television showed a video conference between Maduro and top military officers in which Defense Minister Diego Molero expressed the armed forces "unquestionable loyalty."
"We're committed heart, mind and soul to this revolutionary process," Molero told the vice president.