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CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez can take the oath of office for his next term before the Supreme Court at a later date if the ailing leader isn't fit to be sworn in next week, his vice president said.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone Chavez's inauguration as the 58-year-old president fights a severe respiratory infection more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro's position in a televised interview on Friday night generated new friction between the government and opposition over the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur next Thursday before the National Assembly. Some opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn't make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
Such brewing disagreements are likely to be aired on Saturday when the congress, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority, convenes to choose its president and other legislative leaders. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could potentially end up being the country's interim president if Chavez's illness forces him from office.
Speaking on television, Maduro held up a small blue copy of the constitution and read aloud passages as he argued that opponents were using erroneous interpretations to try to drive Chavez from power.
"They should respect our constitution," the vice president said. "The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez."
Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
"Maduro's comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez's serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority, and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance."
He was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that his pelvic cancer had returned. Chavez said before the operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
Maduro reiterated on Friday that the president is fighting a "complex" battle for his health but expressed hope that eventually, "we'll see him and we'll hear him."
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said. "The president right now is the exercising president. He has his government formed."
Maduro read a portion of the constitution detailing procedures for declaring an "absolute absence" of the president, which would trigger a new election within 30 days, and declared that "none of these grounds can be raised by the Venezuelan opposition."
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the National Assembly, he may take the oath office before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not mention a date.
Others disagree. Ruben Ortiz, a lawyer and opposition supporter, argued that Maduro is wrong and that under the constitution the inauguration date can't be postponed.
If Chavez is not in Caracas to be sworn in on Thursday, Ortiz said in a phone interview, "the president of the National Assembly should take charge." He added that "there is a formal separation between one term and the other."
Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said in a message on Twitter that under the constitution, the vice president will no longer be in office once the inauguration day comes, "the day the presidential term ends."
"The decision about Jan. 10 corresponds to the National Assembly and not the (Supreme Court)," Machado said. "Otherwise, it would be a shameful violation of the Constitution."
Shifter said the opposition is on the defensive, with its only tactic being to insist that Jan. 10 is the established date.
"Chavez controls all the key institutions, and it's doubtful that most Venezuelans will get too upset about defying what seems a fairly minor constitutional provision," Shifter said. "Attacking the government because it has no objection to the Supreme Court swearing in Chavez after Jan. 10 is not exactly a winning political strategy for the opposition."
A delay also serves the government's purposes, Shifter said. "The government wants more time, whether to see if Chavez gets better, or to consolidate their ranks and further splinter and demoralize the opposition."
Chavez hasn't spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation. The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency."
That account raised the possibility that he might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question and didn't give details of the president's treatment.
Independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the government's latest statements indicated a potentially dangerous turn in Chavez's condition, but said it's unclear whether he is attached to a ventilator.
Dr. Gustavo Medrano, a lung specialist at the Centro Medico hospital in Caracas, said he has seen similar cases in cancer patients who have undergone surgery, and "in general it's very bad, above all after a surgery like the one they performed on him."
"I don't know the magnitude of the infection he has, how much of his lungs have been compromised, how much other organs are being affected. That's not clear," Medrano said.
Opposition leaders have blamed vague information coming from the government for persistent rumors about Chavez's condition, and demanded a full medical report.
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011 for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. He also has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional criticized what it called an "information vacuum" in an editorial on Friday, saying Venezuelans are in the dark because "no one speaks clearly from the government." The newspaper called the situation reminiscent of secrecy that surrounded the deaths of Josef Stalin in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China.
State television repeatedly played video of a song in which rappers encourage Venezuelans to pray, saying of Chavez: "You will live and triumph." A recording of a speech by Chavez appears during the song, saying: "I will be with you always!"
AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/venezuela/
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap