Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez’s status questioned by opposition

A woman walks past a mural of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, the capital, this week.
(Leo Ramirez, AFP/Getty Images)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Amid rising uncertainty about whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is healthy enough to remain in office, opposition leaders Wednesday demanded that the cancer-stricken leader’s administration say whether he expects to be sworn in Jan. 10.

If Chavez is too ill to return from Cuba, where last month he underwent his fourth cancer-related surgery since June 2011, then the government should follow constitutional guidelines and call an election within 30 days, opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said at a news conference in Caracas, the capital. Chavez has not been seen or heard in public since undergoing surgery Dec. 11, and the government has released only scant details on his condition.

“To make us believe the president is governing shows a lack of seriousness that borders on irresponsibility,” Aveledo said.


The opposition’s demand came a day after Vice President Nicolas Maduro told a TV interviewer in Cuba that Chavez remained in “delicate” condition and was suffering a respiratory infection.

“With faith in God and in the doctors, our leader Chavez continues to recover and sooner rather than later will emerge from this complex and delicate postoperative phase,” Maduro said.

Maduro did not say whether Chavez would return to be sworn in for a fourth term Jan. 10. Chavez has never said what type of cancer he has or its precise location, but intimated in his final public speech before departing for Cuba that he might not recover in time for the scheduled investiture.

The uncertainty over whether Chavez’s cancer is terminal and whether he is incapacitated has increased signs of instability. In the black market currency exchanges, one U.S. dollar is fetching as much as 17 bolivars, the Venezuelan currency, or nearly four times the official rate of 4.30 per dollar.

Chavez supporters have floated the idea of having the Supreme Court rule to postpone the swearing-in for an unspecified period to give the 58-year-old socialist leader more time to recover.

Another option is for Chavez to resign, in which case Maduro would assume office until Jan. 10, when the National Assembly president would become leader of the nation until a new presidential election could be held. The National Assembly is scheduled to meet Saturday, and it is unclear whether assembly President Diosdado Cabello will be reelected.

Before flying to Cuba, Chavez designated Maduro as his political heir in the event his illness forced his resignation. But some observers say Chavez’s death or resignation could set off a power struggle within the party among Maduro, Cabello, Chavez’s brother Adan and state governors.

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and special correspondent Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.