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Chávez's inauguration in Venezuela postponed. Is that legal? (+video)

Venezuela has been thrown into uncertainty over who should become president tomorrow, what the Constitution dictates, and what is against the law.

By Staff writer / January 9, 2013

A Venezuelan embassy worker holds up a framed image of Venezuela's ailing president, Hugo Chávez, during the monthly Roman Catholic service devoted to the sick at the Church of Our Lady of Regla, in Regla, across the bay from Havana, Tuesday. The leader's inauguration is scheduled for tomorrow, but he has been in Cuba since his December cancer surgery there, and is facing a recovery deemed 'complicated' by his government.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

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Mexico City

Hugo Chávez won a fourth term as president of Venezuela in October, and tomorrow, Jan. 10, was his scheduled inauguration. But the leader, who has been in office since 1999, is unable to appear before the nation to assume office. He has been in Cuba since his December cancer surgery there, and is facing a recovery deemed “complicated” by his government. Venezuela has been thrown into uncertainty as government allies and opposition figures face off over who should become president on Thursday, what the Constitution dictates, and what is against the law.

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CARACAS (AFP) - Hugo Chávez's lieutenants ended the suspense over whether he would make it back to Venezuela to be sworn in on Thursday – but they failed to stamp out protests from the opposition who claim a constitutional crisis is under way. The inaugural day now being billed a day of pro-Chávez rallies, and the conflict looks set to continue as long as the ailing Venezuelan leader remains in hospital in Cuba.

Is it unconstitutional for the inauguration to be delayed?

Allies of President Chávez say the inauguration can legally be delayed, arguing that the swearing-in is only a “formality.” They argue that Chávez maintains his post as president and will be sworn in later, in front of the nation's supreme court, when he is physically ready. The opposition earlier sent a letter to the Organization of American States (OAS) saying that his absence would be "a serious constitutional violation” and that the supreme court should weigh in. The Roman Catholic Church also accused the government of bringing instability to the country. Critics say that, under the provisions of the Constitution, the president of the national assembly should take office temporarily if Chávez does not appear Thursday. Simply maintaining “continuity” of the current administration is illegal, they say. 

“There is one strict date that cannot be modified,” says Luis Salamanca, a professor of constitutional law at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. “A new period is ending, and another one is beginning.” Mr. Salamanca says the swearing-in is more than just a formality.

It is the moment of the inauguration that “Chavez would be granted the legal authority to be president,” he says.

What exactly does the Constitution say?

There are three relevant articles of the Constitution that apply to this case. Article 231, translated by the BBC in English here, reads:

The president-elect shall take office on 10 January of the first year of their constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any reason, (they) cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, they shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court.

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