Hugo Chávez to miss inauguration

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to remain in Cuba for further treatment following cancer surgery and lung infection

Hugo Chávez will miss his scheduled inauguration on Thursday due to poor health but the door should be left open for him to be sworn in at a later date, the Venezuelan government announced on Tuesday.

The statement ends weeks of will-he, won't-he speculation, but is likely to be only the start of a constitutional debate about the status of a president-elect who has not been seen in public since he flew to Cuba for emergency cancer surgery.

Diosdado Cabello, the head of the national assembly, made the announcement at an extraordinary session of the legislature on behalf of vice-president Nicolás Maduro.

He said that, according to medical advice, the president cannot attend the inauguration and will have to remain in Havana to allow more time for recovery, invoking article 231 of the constitution that leaves open to interpretation whether a president can be sworn in at a later date.

He noted that Chávez left for Cuba with the unanimous permission of the assembly to undergo surgery. With a strong majority in the assembly, the ruling party is likely to hold sway.

Henry Ventura, a Chávez ally, supported the proposal during the ensuing debate. "We have to give a human interpretation [to the constitution] ... We must respect president Chávez's human rights to get the treatment he wants and where he wants it."

The opposition, however, said the president's absence meant the leader of the assembly must be affirmed as a stand-in president to avoid a power vacuum.

Instead of the inauguration ceremony, the ruling party have called for a mass rally to demonstrate public support for the president who has led the oil-rich nation since 1999. Regional leaders are expected to fly to the capital, Caracas, to show solidarity with the figurehead of the Latin American left.

The government called on citizens to ignore the "psychological warfare coming from abroad", echoing recent comments by several ruling party officials who have ascribed them to enemies, rightwingers and the opposition.

It said Chávez was still suffering from a lung infection. But there was little reassurance that the president was recovering: "The president is in a stationary condition with respect to the most recent statement, which informed about the respiratory deficiency he faced caused by a pulmonary infection. Treatment is permanently and rigorously administered and the patient is assimilating it."

Opposition politicians and the Catholic church earlier called for more clarity about Chávez's health to determine whether he will be temporarily or permanently absent from office – a constitutional consideration that affects who will replace him and whether a new presidential election will have to be called.

The lack of detailed information has sparked rumours. Some foreign media and microblogs have speculated that Chávez is in a coma or on life support. These suggestions have been denounced by the government.

A fringe group of opponents of Chávez have called for strikes if an indefinite delay appeared to be likely.

To demonstrate the popular support for Chávez, who has been elected three times with large majorities, the ruling camp has called for people to take to the streets of Caracas on Thursday.

Cabello said: "All of Venezuela will come here in front of the Miraflores presidential palace, the people supporting our president, the people supporting Comandante Chávez, in an overwhelming manner, the people in the street."

Uruguay's president, José Mujica, Bolivia's president Evo Morales and possibly other regional heads of state are expected to attend. Brazil has shown its support by declaring that the constitution of Venezuela allows for a gap of up to 180 days should Chávez not be sworn in at the scheduled date.


Jonathan Watts and Virginia Lopez in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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