As harsh as it may sound, some of President Hugo Chavez’s opponents have been telling me that their hope for the New Year is that they will be rid of their leftist leader, either through illness or because he cannot recover from his December 11 cancer operation in Cuba in time to return home for his inauguration. On the second count, at least, they are set to be very disappointed.
For weeks, leading opponents from all the opposition blocs have been demanding that Chavez forfeit the presidency and new elections be called if he is not back by January 10, the date the Constitution has set for swearing in presidents before the National Assembly or – if that is not possible – before the Supreme Court.
But on Christmas Eve, the controversy quickly began to lose steam. At a Mass in honour of the president at the church of Saint Francis in Caracas, Attorney General Cilia Flores was blunt.
“The president was re-elected on October 7, by a healthy majority of the people. That is the date that counts and that hurts the opposition. January 10 is a date that the Constitution chooses as a formality for the swearing in ceremony. President Chavez will be sworn in on that day or another day. It is a simple formality,” said Flores.
Significantly, Enrique Capriles – the face of Venezuela’s opposition movement who ran unsuccessfully against Chavez for the presidency – now seems to agree.
“I’ve never said that if the president cannot present himself on the 10th of January before the National Assembly because of his health, that he then loses his position. No – the people have given him a mandate. Let´s not make a conflict out of this. What we are saying is that the President’s absence cannot be indefinite,” says Capriles, who is now governor of the all-important State of Miranda.
Two weeks ago acting President Nicolas Maduro could hardly fight back tears as he told Venezuelans that the President’s cancer operation had been “complex, long and difficult”.
There were days that many of his countrymen and closest aids feared he might not make it. But on Monday afternoon, I saw him looking much more optimistic and even relieved. He says Chavez recovery is improving day by day and insists he will be sworn in, as soon as he is able.
“Right now, the National Assembly has granted the president a constitutional leave of absence to attend to his health matters. If that leave of absence needs to be extended after January 10, then probably he would be sworn in before the Supreme Court,” said Maduro.
Many opponents may still disagree, but the Constitutional Court is comprised mainly of Chavez supporters, and with the principal opposition leader now dismissing the issue, the main questions now are when will Chavez return, and more importantly, how successful has his latest attempt to beat an extremely aggressive cancer been.
As one man at the church told me, “I don’t care if he is not sworn in. I only want him to live a long life. He is a man of miracles, and I believe there will be one for him.”