Wednesday, 9 January 2013

VENEZUELA:'' Chavéz's Inauguration'': The Constitutionality of his absence

President Hugo Chavez won't be able to attend his scheduled swearing-in this week, Venezuela's government announced Tuesday, confirming suspicions that the leader's illness will keep him in a Cuban hospital past the key date.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello made the announcement during a legislative session while reading a letter from Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

Tensions between the government and opposition have been building in a constitutional dispute over whether the ailing president's swearing-in can legally be postponed. The president underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba last month and hasn't spoken publicly in a month.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said earlier Tuesday that the Supreme Court should rule in the disagreement between the opposition and Chavez's government. He said the constitution is clear that the current presidential term ends on Jan. 10.

Other opposition leaders have argued that the inauguration cannot legally be put off and that the National Assembly president should take over as interim president if Chavez hasn't returned from Cuba on inauguration day.

Under Venezuela's constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his term.

The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10, but adds that the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he's unable to be sworn in before the assembly.

Officials argue that clause does not explicitly mention a date, though opponents say it clearly refers to the Jan. 10 deadline but for Chavez's supporters, the interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10.

These days, the Venezuelan government is busy preparing for tomorrow re-inauguration of the country's beloved president, without him, Hugo Chavéz, and also for his funeral, some might think.

Hugo Chavéz, who has been in office for 14 years, was re-elected for a third time in October 2012. He is scheduled to take the oath of office once more time, tomorrow, January 10. But Chavéz has been sick with an undisclosed form of cancer since at least 2011 and, after months of press releases that said he was getting better by the day, the government announced on December 30 that new complications had emerged during the leader's fourth surgery in Havana. Chavéz, still in Cuba and presumably still alive, would not make it for his swearing-in ceremony.

Venezuela's constitution offers some guidance on what to do. If the president dies, the vice-president (in this case, Nicolás Maduro, an avowed communist) will take office. He will call a new election within 30 days.

If Chavéz survives but cannot attend the inauguration, as it is the case now, most jurists agree that the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, will take power. If the government rules that the president-elect is only ''temporarily absent'', Cabello will govern for 90 days, which will be renewable for 90 days more.

If it instead declares the president-elect to be ''permanently absent'', Cabello would be constitutionally obligated to call an early election.

The government is at a loss in this political maze. It is organizing church services, making somber announcements and readying the country for the prospect of life without Chavéz, only yesterday that it confirmed that Chavéz will not make it to the swearing-in ceremony and suggests that Chavéz's inauguration to be pushed forward to another date. When? this is the big question.

However Cabello has promised that the government will think of something, maybe swear Chavéz in some other day, or in absentia. He has even hinted at the possibility of flying the Supreme Court to Cuba to swear in the dying president there.

The situtaion becomes an emotional and political confusion. The Emotional confusion is easy to understand: Chavistas are being asked to harbor hope and sorrow, all at once. The opposition, too, is full of hope and sorrow, but for the opposite reasons.

The political confusion, meanwhile is no small matter. The government's announcement that Chavéz cannot make it to his inauguration tomorrow, has produced uncertainty.

The political confusion seems to gain rooms within Chavéz's party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The timing of the announcement of the president's absence, ( permanent or temporary) determines who gets to control the succession, Maduro or Cabello. And each man leads a different faction.

Chavéz stated his preference for Maduro to succeed him in December, during a weekend visit to Caracas between cancer treatments. But the rest of the party does not seem to be fully on board. Maduro's opponents believe that he is too close to Cuba and too distant from home in recent years. Cabello, too, has detractors. Thanks to his history as a member of the armed forces, a state governor, and a minister of public workd, he is seen as being allied with the least glorious element of Venezuela's revolution.

Whoever takes the reins will be tasked with keeping Chavismo alive. What that means, of course, depends on where one falls on the political spectrum.

But in the eyes of the opposition, Chavéz is an elected despot--someone who uses his popularity to erode the rule of law. It is inconceivable to them that supposedly revolutionary Venezuelans are so smitten by a leader who actually exacerbated the ills of the system that his revolution was meant to replace. In other words, Chavéz's main domestic legacy--and something his successor will have to cope with---will then be an intensely polarized nation.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist