Caracas - A constitutional fight over cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez's status intensified on Tuesday with the government planning a massive show of support in the streets on the day he is supposed to be sworn in to a new term.
The country's main opposition coalition, meanwhile, turned to international organisations for support, warning the Organisation of American States of an “alteration of the constitutional order” if Chavez is unable to take the oath of office as scheduled on Thursday and his government remains in charge anyway.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez's medical condition has remained “stationary” since the latest complication from surgery was reported four days ago.
Chavez, who underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana nearly a month ago, is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in a respiratory insufficiency.
The call for a rally Thursday outside the Miraflores presidential palace comes amid a stormy debate over whether Chavez and his current government can remain in office if he is too sick to take the oath of office.
The Catholic church waded into the controversy for the first time Monday, warning that it would be “morally unacceptable” to override the constitution and that Chavez's prolonged absence had put the country's stability at risk.
But the leftist government and the conservative opposition brandished conflicting interpretations of the constitution, with Chavez's allies calling the president's swearing-in a “formality” that can be fulfilled sometime after January 10.
In a letter to OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza, the head of the main opposition coalition Ramon Aveledo argued that, under the constitution, the current administration's term ends January 10 and cannot be extended if Chavez is not sworn in again. Under this reasoning, new elections would have to be called.
“We rule out absolutely nothing,” said National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, when asked at a news conference if Chavez's return in time for the inauguration had been ruled out.
“But we're not going to get to the 10th and not know what we are going to do. We know what we're going to do,” he said.
Part of the plan is to hold a huge pro-Chavez rally, with the participation of as yet unidentified foreign leaders, in a reminder of the 55 percent support that won the leftist firebrand re-election to another six-year term October 7.
“All of Venezuela will come here in front of the Miraflores presidential palace, the people supporting our president - the people supporting comandante Chavez - in an overwhelming manner, the people in the street,” said Cabello.
The only foreign leader who has confirmed he will attend is Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, who was scheduled to arrive Thursday. Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner was planning a visit to Cuba the same day.
A key opposition leader, meanwhile, has called for street protests if the government pushes past January 10 without a swearing-in, raising the risks of confrontation in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.
“People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution,” said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party.
He said the opposition will also go to “institutions, countries, embassies and organisations outside of the country to let them know that authorities are trying to twist the constitution due to an internal problem.”
The government, however, gained support from Latin American heavyweight Brazil, which said a constitutional process was in place to assure continuity in the event Chavez is unable to be sworn in.
Marco Aurelio Garcia, a top adviser to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, met in Havana last week with the Venezuelan leaders and said he learned there was “constitutional cover” if Chavez fails to show in Caracas January 10.
He said Brazil was not worried that the country will be destabilised.
“There would be concern in the Brazilian government, in Mercosur, in Unasur, if there were a concrete process of instability in Venezuela, and that is not happening,” he said. Mercosur and Unasur are regional groupings that Venezuela belongs to.
Garcia said the process involved setting a 90 day period, renewable for another 90 days, for the Venezuelan leader's absence, after which a decision would be made on whether he is to be declared permanently incapacitated.
Under the 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 six-year term.
Throughout his illness, which was first detected in June 2011, the 58-year-old Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba to undergo his fourth and most difficult round of cancer surgery.
He has not been seen in public since, and the government disclosed last week that he had suffered complications after surgery in the form of a “severe pulmonary infection.”