Venezuela postpones Chavez swearing-in

Venezuela’s opposition announced on Wednesday that it plans to ask the Supreme Court to rule on whether delaying the swearing-in of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez violates the constitution.

Opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said the opposition coalition will ask the court for an opinion on Congress’s decision to postpone Chavez’s inauguration  which had been scheduled for Thursday.

The constitutional debate takes place against a backdrop of charges that the government isn’t giving complete information about the health of Chavez, who underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last month and hasn’t spoken publicly in a month.

Aveledo insisted on the opposition’s stance 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 and whether he is fit to remain in office.

Aveledo didn’t say when or how the opposition would bring its challenge.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez’s allies, voted on Tuesday to let Chavez be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court. Government officials say the constitution allows the court to swear in a new president and argue that clause does not specify a date. It is unclear what the opposition could do, beyond seeking a court decision, to challenge the plan.

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.

The news sparked passionate debate in the assembly, with the opposition coalition arguing that if he is not sworn in on Thursday, Chavez must temporarily step aside and let the head of the National Assembly, Cabello, assume the presidency. Aveledo also wrote to the Organization of American States explaining his party’s  concerns, but other opposition leaders say there  are no plans for protests on inauguration day.

At the heart of the dispute are differing interpretations of Venezuela’s constitution. It says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan.  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.

Opponents argue that even if the oath is taken before the Supreme Court it should be on Jan. 10. Chavez’s allies argue that the charter doesn’t explicitly specify on what day it must take place.

Capriles said earlier Tuesday that Chavez’s current term constitutionally ends Thursday and that the Supreme Court should rule in the matter.

In the debate set off by the announcement that Chavez would not return from Cuba for the inauguration, opposition lawmaker Omar Barboza urged Chavez’s allies to accept Cabello as interim president while Chavez recovers, saying that this is to avoid an “institutional crisis.”

Barboza said that a “temporary absence” should be declared, which would give the president 90 days to recover, and which could be renewed for another 90 days.

Maduro has called the swearing-in a “formality” and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution. Chavez has said that if he’s unable to continue on as president, Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him.

Constitutional law expert Henrique Sanchez Falcon, a professor at Central University of Venezuela, said the government’s position “is absolutely contrary to what’s established under the constitution, which says that the term lasts six years.”

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