Hugo Chávez supporters stage inauguration day rally for absent leader

President too ill to attend scheduled swearing-in ceremony but supporters turn out to declare 'We are all Chávez'

The day was scheduled for an inauguration celebration. It could easily have become an occasion for mourning, possibly even a day of conflict. Instead there was a peaceful rally for a missing president, Hugo Chávez, and a giant question mark over what happens next.

With flags, banners, klaxons and vuvuzelas, more than 100,000 Chávez supporters thronged the streets outside Venezuela's presidential palace, Miraflores, and filled the air with noise, colour and emotion as if to make up for the gap left by the man who has dominated this space for the past 14 years.

Wearing the emblematic red shirts of the ruling party, and clutching posters printed with their leader's image and the slogan "We are all Chávez!", supporters made their way to the same balcony where three months ago they celebrated with their president after his fourth election victory.

This time, however, Chávez was 1,300 miles away in a Cuban hospital bed. He has been missing from public life for a month, since he underwent emergency cancer surgery. His current condition is uncertain.

The government says he is suffering from a severe respiratory infection; it has not said whether he is conscious. One thing is certain: the president was too ill to attend his swearing-in ceremony. "We are here to be sworn into office in place of our president who wasn't able to attend. We will wait for him as long as it is necessary," said Mariela Rodriguez, a teacher. "God will bring him back to us healed."

The organisers, who brought regional leaders, Miss World and fighter jets to the event, described the mood as sad but strong. Both elements were evident, but so was uncertainty. "People are worried and praying to God for his prompt return, but it's hard because we don't know what is happening," said Estefania D'Stefano, a shop-owner.

Vice-president Nicolas Maduro – Chávez's stated preference as successor – said heads of state and ministers from 19 countries had come to Caracas, though many were also there for a meeting about oil supplies.

Despite the absence of the president, he said the event still marked the start of a new six-year term following Chávez's re-election in October. "A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading," Maduro said.

Chávez's six-year term is up and another is supposed to begin, but the formal shift has become formless. The ruling party announced this week that the inauguration would be delayed to allow more time for Chávez to recover. How long was left unclear.

Despite a fierce debate in the national assembly, and opposition accusations of a "constitutional coup", the postponement has been endorsed by the supreme court, the legislature and the military. Thursday's demonstration was called to show that the public and regional leaders were also behind it.

On the eve of the rally, Diosdado Cabello, head of the national assembly and a longtime Chávez ally, called on the public to bring along symbols of presidential power as a show of solidarity. "Anyone who has a sash, bring it along, because tomorrow the people will be invested as president of the republic, because the people are Chávez," he said. "All of us here are Chá- vez, the people in the street are Chávez, the lady who cooks is Chávez, the com- rade who works as a watchman is Chá- vez, the soldier is Chávez, the woman is Chávez, the farmer is Chávez, the worker is Chávez; we're all Chávez."

In response, supporters wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Yo soy Chávez" (I am Chávez), and street vendors sold satin sashes like those the president would have worn to be sworn into office.

Devotees reiterated the leadership's message. "I've noticed that the people and all the ministers have become more united, because we have understood that it is through unity that we can safeguard the revolution. We will wait for [the] president as long as we need to," said Amarilis Gutierrez, a co-ordinator of a refuge in Miraflores.

The crowd was smaller and more muted than the giant campaign rallies of past years, a sign both of the mood of concern among Chávez supporters and the absence of anyone who could come close to him in terms of charisma and pulling power.

But there was criticism too among passersby that the country had been left rudderless. "He has a right to recover, but we cannot wait for two years for Chávez to come back," said Noryelin Alarcon, a legal assistant. "The government feels paralysed. Nothing here gets done without Chávez."

The ruling party has tried to emphasise continuity of leadership: Chávez, it says, is still in power, though the country's day-to-day running is largely being carried out by Maduro.

Fringe rightwing groups called for a civic strike on Thurday, but the mainstream opposition has rejected conflict. Henrique Capriles, the defeated opposition candidate in the last presidential election, said he would not ask supporters to take to the streets, but called instead on the international community not to recognise the "unconstitutional act" by the government.

That appeal looked likely to fall on deaf ears, particularly given the strong regional support for Chávez, who is a figurehead of the left. Several Latin American leaders are visiting Caracas, including Uruguay's José Mujica, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, has telephoned Maduro, and her government has recognised that a delay of up to 180 days is allowable under the Venezuelan constitution.

The US has kept a public distance from the political fray. "We hope that any transiton in Venezuela be democratic, legal, constitutional and transparent, a state department spokesman told the Spanish news agency EFE.

What happens next will depend on whether Chávez can recover and the ruling camp maintain its unity under Maduro. The alternatives were almost too much for many of those on the rally to contemplate. "I have never seen such a special leader," said Zayda Prieto, a construction worker. "I came here today because we are all Chávez. I will give him all the time he needs to recover … in the next weeks we'll have him back and I will be back here in this same place to welcome him."


Virginia López in Caracas and Jonathan Watts

The GuardianTramp

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