Is President Hugo Chavez recovering or not from what officials concede was a “complex and difficult” cancer operation in Havana, Cuba, on December 11? And with his inauguration scheduled for January 10, will he be able to return to Venezuela to be sworn in before the National Assembly as the Constitution requires?
In June last year, President Chavez underwent an emergency operation for a “pelvic infection” that revealed that he had a “malignant tumour the size of a baseball”. Three operations later the exact nature and details of his cancer and its prognosis remain a secret.
As a result, the rumours and specualation continue, both on the streets and in the media – especially newspapers run by the opposition which quote “reliable sources” that claim Chavez is practically on life support and not responding to treatment.
On the other hand, every day we hear from the acting president – Vice President Nicolas Maduro – or the President of the National Assembly – Diosdado Cabello – who insist Chavez is recovering slowly but surely.
What no one can or will say is whether the president – who was re-elected in October – will be back in Venezuela in time to be sworn in for another six-year term. This is a key issue because according to the Constitution, he must do so on January 10.
If not, the president of the National Assembly takes over and new elections are called in 30 days. There is no provision for an absence or an extension.
When I asked Vice President Maduro directly about the options, apart from calling for fresh elections, he was vague.
“We are concentrating on our prayers and faith and on the medical treatment that our president is receiving, which is the best in the world – so that he will fulfill his duty to be sworn in. He is the commander of a thousand victories and a thousand miracles. If this were not the case, he left specific instructions.”
The instructions were clear. Should he not be able to resume his duties as president, Chavez asked the people of Venezuela to elect Maduro in his place.
But so far, there is no indication that he is planning to step down, even if he is not able to return on time for inauguration day.
And so while the opposition is demanding that Chavez forfeit the presidency and call new elections in 30 days, the government is keeping its cards very close to its chest.
Clearly, the Constitutional Court, which is stacked with Chavez loyalists, could interpret the law in such a way as to allow an extension. But for how long? The question has not yet been put to the court.
In the meantime, no one but a very small circle of the president’s closest family members and allies knows exactly what Chavez’ condition is – or the status of his cancer – feeding the uncertainty about the future of the country and its larger-than-life political leader.