Venezuelan court: Chavez inauguration delay upheld

Venezuelan court: Chavez inauguration delay upheld

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will begin a new term on Thursday even if he is not sworn in, the country's Supreme Court said, CNN reported.

The ruling Wednesday backs the government's position and counters opposition claims that the country would face a power vacuum if the inauguration were postponed.

The status quo -- with Chavez fighting for his health in Cuba while his vice president and head of the national assembly take a leading role -- will extend beyond the key date of January 10, the mandated inauguration day.

The 58-year-old Venezuelan president has been treated for cancer in Cuba for the past month, most recently battling respiratory complications.

Officials announced this week that Chavez will not be at the inauguration.

Chavez is currently on a permitted leave from the country for health reasons, and despite not swearing in for a new term as scheduled, there is neither a temporary or permanent absence, said Luisa Estella Morales, the president of the Supreme Court. A permanent absence would have triggered new elections under the constitution.

Under the constitution, Chavez can be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court, she said.

Calling it a "historic moment," Morales said that the court's interpretation of the constitution was debated by all the justices.

"Despite the 10th of January beginning a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in is not necessary in his position," she said.

Her comments echoed a statement read to lawmakers by the vice president on Tuesday, stating that a delayed inauguration was legal.

That the Supreme Court -- stacked with Chavez loyalists -- sided with the president's party was not surprising, but it is to be seen if it will prevent any political turmoil.

Supporters and critics of Chavez both point to the country's constitution but offer wildly different interpretations of what it says.

Opposition lawmakers say that Chavez should be declared temporarily absent from his presidential post to avoid a power vacuum.

They argue that Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, should temporarily assume the presidency while Chavez recovers.

But Cabello, a close Chavez ally and member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, said that would be unconstitutional.

Henrique Capriles, the man Chavez defeated at the polls in October, had earlier called on the Supreme Court to clarify the confusion.

Chavez has not been seen in public and officials have not released any photographs of him since he arrived in Havana for his fourth cancer operation in early December, fueling speculation that his health is worse than the government is letting on.

Last week, a government spokesman said Chavez was battling a severe lung infection that has caused respiratory failure. Ernesto Villegas said the president was following a strict treatment regimen for "respiratory insufficiency" caused by the infection.

His condition remained unchanged Monday, the government said in a statement.

"Treatment has been administered permanently and rigorously, and the patient is supporting it," the statement said.

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