CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez does not have to take the oath of office as scheduled Thursday to begin his fourth term as president, a finding that some legal experts assailed as unconstitutional.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales said Wednesday that Chavez's absence is acceptable given that his service will be uninterrupted and therefore does not fall under constitutional guidelines that could have forced him to attend the swearing-in ceremony or relinquish power.
"Although Jan. 10 marks the beginning of a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in of the president is not necessary in [Chavez's] status as president-elect because there is no interruption in the exercise of his authority," Morales said. Chavez "is not a new president who has to take possession, he is the president whose performance has been approved by the people."
The Venezuelan Constitution calls for presidents to be sworn in at the National Assembly on Jan. 10, but also provides an alternative in which the Supreme Court conducts the inauguration "if for any unforeseen reason" the congressional ceremony cannot take place. To have the Supreme Court administer the oath or delay the swearing-in, the president-elect must ask for a temporary postponement.
Government officials say Chavez is in Cuba recovering from surgery and is in possession of his mental faculties. But the president, who officials say is suffering from "respiratory insufficiency," has not been seen or heard from since the surgery Dec. 11. Some Venezuelans think that could mean he is comatose and thus unable to govern, which would require a new presidential election.
Constitutional law expert Armando Rodriguez Garcia said there were "inconsistencies" in the ruling, noting that the constitutional clause requiring the oath "covers the institution, not the person." Chavez's current term, and thus his authority, ends Thursday and he must be sworn in to resume it, the professor said.
"If Chavez is unable to be sworn in tomorrow, then power must transfer to the legislative branch in the person of the president of the National Assembly so that there is no power vacuum," said Rodriguez Garcia, a Central University of Venezuela faculty member who was one of 38 law professors who signed a petition Tuesday saying Chavez's absence from the ceremony would be unconstitutional.
National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, a close confidant and former army comrade of Chavez who participated in a 1992 coup attempt led by Chavez, said Tuesday that under no circumstances would he replace Chavez as temporary leader.
The Supreme Court ruling raised the question of who will be Venezuela's interim leader while Chavez is absent. Morales said the executive branch, including the vice president and ministers, should remain in place and continue their duties.
That means Vice President Nicolas Maduro probably will take the reins of government. The parameters of his power may be evident Thursday in Caracas during a mass rally in support of Chavez. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Uruguay President Jose Mujica are among the foreign leaders expected to attend.
But a strict reading of the constitution indicates that Maduro's term as vice president ends Thursday as well, as do those of the Cabinet officials, Rodriguez Garcia said. Thus, some experts say, Maduro and other officials cannot assume those high offices unless a legally sworn-in president appoints them.
On the eve of his Dec. 9 departure for Havana, a visibly despondent Chavez raised the prospect that he might not return from this setback. He designated Maduro as his political heir and favored candidate should new elections be held.
The court's ruling followed the decision by the National Assembly on Tuesday to give Chavez permission to be away indefinitely while he recovers from his fourth cancer surgery in 19 months. The exact type of cancer has not been publicly divulged.
Political analyst and columnist Manuel Felipe Sierra described as "highly significant" that Defense Minister Diego Molero appeared with Maduro in a teleconference Tuesday night to express his "unquestioned commitment" to the National Assembly's decision of granting Chavez an open-ended absence to recuperate.
"The military is the backbone of Chavismo, so the minister was sending an important message to the country about its support for Maduro's position," Sierra said.
Also Wednesday, the Supreme Court denied a motion by opposition figures that it set up a medical team to evaluate Chavez's physical and mental state.
Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents. Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.