Last updated: January 8, 2013 7:34 am

Chávez cancer sparks leadership fears

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There are fears of a constitutional crisis in Venezuela if Hugo Chávez fails to attend the inauguration of his next presidential term on Thursday, with allies and opponents accusing each other of manipulating his battle with cancer for political aims.

“We have a government that is totally paralysed,” said Henrique Capriles, the de facto opposition leader who lost to Mr Chávez in presidential elections in October.

It is not clear who would be left in charge if Mr Chávez fails to attend the inauguration of his third six-year term as president, or even if the ceremony will take place as planned.

Mr Chávez is in a “stable situation” in a Cuban hospital receiving treatment due to a severe respiratory infection, his government said late on Monday.

Ernesto Villegas, information minister, provided the update, saying the government was in “permanent contact’’ with Mr Chávez’s medical team and relatives who are with him. His report came as other government officials reiterated their stance that the president need not be sworn in for a new term as scheduled this Thursday and could instead have his inauguration at a later date.

“The president is in a stable situation in relation with that described in the most recent report,’’ Mr Villegas said, reading a statement on television. “His treatment is being applied constantly and rigorously, and the patient is assimilating it.”

Mr Villegas did not give details about the treatment, which the government says is for a respiratory infection that developed after cancer surgery on December 11.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church on Monday joined those criticising the government for failing to provide more details about Mr Chávez’s condition.

“The government hasn’t told the nation all of the truth,” said Monsignor Diego Padron, president of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference.

Catholic leaders also said that conflicting stances by the government and opposition ahead of Mr Chávez’s scheduled swearing-in make for a potentially dangerous and violent situation.

“The nation’s political and social stability is at serious risk,” said Monsignor Padron, reading a statement from the bishops’ conference.

The opposition claims that the alleged rivalry inside the president’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) between his anointed heir, Nicolás Maduro, and the president of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, is adding to the instability.

Mr Capriles argues that if he cannot be sworn in on January 10, as the constitution stipulates, then the leader of Congress, Mr Cabello, should become the interim president.

If the president’s absence is then declared to be permanent, new elections must be called within 30 days, according to the constitution.

However, the government argues that Mr Maduro, as vice-president, should remain in power in Mr Chávez’s absence.

The re-election of Mr Cabello as president of Congress on Saturday was ostensibly a show of unity by the PSUV, as the source of power of Mr Maduro’s main rival was reaffirmed. But critics fear this will only accentuate divisions between government factions.

“Come here, Nicolás. You’re my brother, my friend. They don’t understand that,” said Mr Cabello, embracing Mr Maduro in front of television cameras outside Congress after his re-election.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges argues that differences between the two men explains the expected postponement of Mr Chávez’s inauguration ceremony on Thursday, with Mr Maduro’s group attempting to prevent Mr Cabello from taking power.

“That big hug between Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello was set up to reflect unity that does not exist,” Mr Borges told journalists on Sunday. “While the president is sick in Havana, they have a power conflict. That’s why they are engendering this violation of the constitution.”

Mr Maduro is a former trade unionist who is known to enjoy the favour of Cuba’s Communist government, while Mr Cabello is a former army officer who has the support of the military and is well-connected with chavista business magnates.

“The interpretation of the constitution’s provisions for the presidential succession and the lack of independent medical reports on the true medical condition of the president are turning into an increasing source of political tension between the opposition and the official camp,” said Alberto Ramos, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.

Government supporters said that the opposition was manipulating the alleged rivalry between Mr Maduro and Mr Cabello to sow doubt among Venezuelans.

“They are the children of Chávez,” wrote Nicmer Evans, a leftist political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, in a Monday column of Mr Maduro and Mr Cabello.

“The two men with the revolutionary leader’s greatest trust have different origins but are part of the same team, and are obliged to become the people who enable the diverse factions of chavismo to stay together,” he added.

Senior chavistas claim that the ceremony due to be held on Thursday is a mere “formality”, and that the president can be sworn in by the Supreme Court at a later date. What matters most, they say, is that Mr Chávez was legitimately re-elected as president in October.

“[Thursday] will be just another normal day in Venezuela and the world,” Celia Flores, attorney-general, said on Sunday, adding that Mr Maduro, who is also her husband, will remain at the helm of the Opec nation. Mr Chávez named him as his political successor before leaving for Havana for cancer surgery.

Mr Chávez has not been seen in public since, although on Monday Mr Maduro said that he sent “a kiss and a hug” to children as they returned to school.

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