Road to Post-Chávez Venezuela Still Nebulous

PHOTO: The recently re-elected National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, right, speaks with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro. Both men could be successors to President Hugo Chavez, if he fails to recover from cancer surgery in Cuba.

Fernando Llano/AP Photo

The road to a post-Chávez Venezuela became a little bit less hazy today, after legislators re-elected Diosdado Cabello to the post of National Assembly president.

Cabello is a long time Chávez ally with close links to the military. According to some observers, he clashes with Chávez's handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, over several issues, including the role of Cuban intelligence officers in Venezuela.

See Also: What Happens If Chávez Doesn't Make His Inauguration?

Cabello's re-election to the National Assembly post means that if Chávez dies before January 10 -- when he is scheduled to start his fourth consecutive term in office -- Cabello would have to take over as interim president of the country, until elections are held once again.

But if Chávez lives beyond that date, the transition process in Venezuela will continue to be a confusing affair.

Maduro, the vice president, said in an interview on Friday night that if Chávez is alive but not healthy enough to be sworn into office, Venezuela's Supreme Court could swear him in at a "later date."

"The constitution is flexible in that regard," Maduro told the Venezuelan state-run news channel Venezolana de Televisión. "Chávez has already formed his government," he added.

Maduro, who has taken over several presidential duties while Chávez is in the hospital, argued that Chávez's fourth period in office would begin whether there is an inauguration ceremony or not.

But this interpretation of the Venezuelan Constitution clashes with that of some opposition lawyers, who say that the January 10 swearing-in date is not flexible, and claim that if Chávez is not able to preside over the country on that date, Diosdado Cabello would have to take over as interim president.

Under this interpretation, Chávez's fourth term in office would never begin if he is too sick to be sworn in. Vice President Maduro would be out of a job and new elections would be held in order to form a new government.

For the moment, Maduro's plan to keep the current government running until Chávez can be sworn in at a later date is the most likely to prevail in Venezuela, as the country's Supreme Court is packed with allies of the socialist president.

"The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chávez's serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage," Michael Shifter, president of the D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue told the AP. "In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority and rally support within Chavismo," Shifter said.

The general consensus in Venezuela is that if Chávez dies at any time, before or after January 10, elections should be held within 30 days of his passing. However, there is also some room for debate here, with some lawyers arguing that according to the Venezuelan Constitution, elections only have to be "called for," not actually "held" in a 30-day period.

Of course, none of this legal debate may be necessary if Chávez miraculously recovers from his cancer surgery, and triumphantly returns to Venezuela, energized and ready to serve out his upcoming six-year term.

But the prospects of that happening are slim. The Venezuelan president had his fourth cancer surgery in 18 months in early December, and has not spoken in public since he headed to Cuba on December 9, nor written any messages on his massively popular Twitter account, as he did in previous post-surgery periods.

Rumors on the web, from journalists and doctors who claim to have obtained leaked information, say that Chávez is on artificial life support, able to breathe only with the help of a machine. On December 30, the Venezuelan government announced that Chávez had contracted a respiratory infection that arose from post-surgery complications, and on January 3, it updated his status, saying he now had a "severe lung infection."

Making things more uncertain, the Venezuelan government has not provided any further details on the president's health, prompting criticism from the opposition, who say officials want to keep citizens in the dark about Chávez's real status.

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