Ill Chávez's absence from swearing-in prompts opposition to cry foul

Thu, Jan 10, 2013, 00:00

During 14 tumultuous years at the head of his “Bolivarian Revolution” president Hugo Chávez has always observed the letter of Venezuela’s constitution, if sometimes not its spirit.

Indeed it was his opponents, alarmed at his deepening radicalism, who in 2002 sought to wreck the constitutional order with a coup that fizzled out ignominiously after two days.

But this has all changed with the confirmation that Chávez is too poorly to attend today’s scheduled swearing-in for a new term before the country’s national assembly.

In a letter read before the assembly on Tuesday evening, the government said the president will instead remain in a Cuban hospital, the true state of his health – like the type of cancer he is battling – still a closely held secret.

Vice-president Nicolás Maduro’s letter told deputies Chávez would return when well and be sworn in before the supreme court. He invoked article 231 of the constitution as justification for the delay, though this clearly fixes January 10th as the date for the swearing-in, only allowing leeway with regards to its location.

Despite the constitution’s fixing of strict term limits, Maduro is hanging on to the notion that, as a re-elected president, Chávez inherits full power from his previous mandate even if he does not attend the mere “formalism” of his swearing-in.

Postponement approved

The assembly approved the postponement. Yesterday the supreme court caused further confusion by stating that Chávez did not need to be sworn in for his new term or subjected to a medical examination to see if he was fit to continue in office, as provided for by the constitution. Both institutions have large Chavista majorities.

The country’s opposition has cried foul, though its leadership has yet to follow many of its supporters and denounce a constitutional coup, though it has warned of “a grave violation of the constitutional order in Venezuela”.

It is demanding that Chávez be declared absent and power pass to the head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello, until the president is well enough to resume office – or, failing that, new elections be held.

But Chavismo is well-placed to carry out its swerve around the constitution. It can claim it is fulfilling the popular will following Chávez’s convincing win in October’s presidential election. The army has also given its backing.

But Chavismo does this at the risk of aggravating Venezuela’s already dangerously deep political divisions and undermining its own constitutional credentials.

This is especially true as no one outside of a closed circle around the president knows how much he is aware of the manoeuvrings under way.

Few believe that he is currently carrying out the job of president in which the assembly has just confirmed him.

But there are many groups within Venezuela and across the region who have a vested interest in Chávez staying in power, even if he is too ill to exercise it.

There are his chief lieutenants within Chavismo itself, Maduro and the head of the national assembly Cabello, undoubtedly aware that the movement has never fought a presidential election without their totemic leader, who for more than a decade has held together its competing blocs.

There are also the Brazilian and Argentinian governments who have used their friendship with Chávez to help open

doors to contracts worth billions for their countries’ companies.

Brazil’s backing

The opposition claims these amount to a historic bad deal for Venezuela and promise to revise them if it gains power. Brazil has already signalled its support for this week’s constitutional sleight of hand, removing the risk of any regional isolation.

And perhaps most preoccupied of all is the Cuban regime responsible for his treatment. In el comandante, it found a friend to provide the subsidies crucial in helping the country emerge from the emergency period of the 1990s that followed the collapse of its previous patron, the Soviet Union.

On blogs and Twitter, Venezuelans have taken to comparing Chávez with El Cid, the Spanish knight who was the symbol of the Christian reconquest of Iberia from the Moors.

According to legend, after his death, El Cid’s wife ordered that he be mounted in full armour on his horse so as to lead his unaware troops into battle.

Chávez is still alive. But he will need to show sooner rather than later that he has the ability to return to power and not just remain in office from a hospital bed in Cuba.

If he does not do this – and his lieutenants fail to make alternative arrangements – then the legendary comparisons with El Cid will start to seem apt.