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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.

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Article 233 defines the “absolute absence” of the president as:

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His or her death; resignation; removal from office by a Supreme Court judgement; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board appointed by the Supreme Court and approved by the National Assembly; abandoning office, as declared by the National Assembly; and revocation by popular vote.

It goes on to say:

When there is an absolute absence of the president-elect before taking office, there shall be a new election by universal, direct and secret vote within the next 30 consecutive days. Pending the election and inauguration of the new president, the president of the National Assembly will assume responsibility for the presidency of the Republic.

If the absence of the president of the Republic occurs during the first four years of the constitutional period, there shall be a new election by universal, direct and secret vote within 30 consecutive days. Pending the election and inauguration of the new president, the executive vice-president will be responsible for the presidency of the Republic.

Finally, Article 234 says: “When the president is temporarily unable to serve, [he/she] shall be replaced by the executive vice-president for a period of up to 90 days, which may be extended by resolution of the National Assembly for an additional 90 days.”

So why all of the divided views?

While the Constitution describes what should happen if the inauguration is missed, and what to do if a president is “permanently absent,” it does not define what to do in the case of a temporary absence in a moment of transition. As a microcosm of the polarization that has marked the Andean nation under Chávez's leadership, the views of what should happen vary widely. Allies of Chávez argue that the opposition is using his delicate health to take the presidency away from him, undermining the clear wishes of a citizenry who reelected Chávez in Oct. 7 elections.

The opposition says that the Chávez government is violating the Constitution for political purposes. Instead of naming the national assembly leader as temporary president, they have called for a rally on Thursday to underline the support for Chávez. Part of the motive may be timing, Salamanca says, to give Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's preferred successor and the person who is in charge while Chávez is absent, a chance to become a more well-known political figure if new elections are eventually called.

It may also simply be a reflection of the inability to foresee a Venezuela without Chávez at the helm. As Venezuela expert David Smilde points out in his blog, Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America, “taking the plunge to start making moves for a chavismo without Chávez is no small step."

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