Chavez swearing-in likely to be delayed
In the latest in a series of grave bulletins, the government said on Thursday that the president was suffering from complications brought on by a severe lung infection after surgery. Aides earlier described his condition as "delicate". The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, said it was painful to see his close political ally in this state. "The situation for our brother Hugo Chávez is very worrying," he said.
With information scarce, rumours abound. Spain's ABC newspaper claimed the president was in a coma and kept alive by a life-support system. Social networks are abuzz with speculation that he is already dead.
Ministers and ruling party officials have lined up to deny such reports. Venezuela's vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, has told the country to ignore "enemy" rumours of Chávez's imminent demise. On Friday, he accused ABC of being funded by the extreme right which had backed General Franco's "despicable regime" in Spain.
On the streets, nobody is giving up on Chávez, but there is a growing resignation that he will not attend his swearing-in as scheduled.
The opposition wants new elections, which are constitutionally mandated 30 days after Chavez's death or his inability to serve.
But Vice President Nicolas Maduro is telling the Venezuelan people that the constitution says that the dictator's swearing in can be delayed:
President Hugo Chavez's formal swearing-in for a new six-year term scheduled for January 10 can be postponed if he is unable to attend due to his battle to recover from cancer surgery, Venezuela's vice president said on Friday.
Nicolas Maduro's comments were the clearest indication yet that the Venezuelan government is preparing to delay the swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or calling a new election in the South American OPEC nation.
In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks. Allies say he is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.
The political opposition argues that Chavez's presence on January 10 in Cuba - where there are rumors he may be dying - is tantamount to the president's stepping down.
But Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Chavez was sworn in at a later date by the nation's top court.
"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions," he said.
"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in coordination with the head of state."
In the increasing "Kremlinology"-style analysis of Venezuela's extraordinary political situation, that could be interpreted in different ways: that Maduro and other allies trust Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying time to cement succession plans before going into an election.
Chavez's condition sounds increasingly like the end of the road. There has been speculation he is already on a respirator and doctors who are familiar with cancer progression believe he has very little chance of recovery.
The Venezuelan people are increasingly nervous about what will come after Chavez and well they should be. A power struggle is not out of the question, despite Chavez naming Maduro his successor. And the dictator's fanatical followers are unlikely to allow any opposition candidate who might win a new election to take office.
However it plays out, it is not likely to be peaceful.