A rain of confetti pours over the waving flags and jubilant signs of an enraptured mob. High-spirited words can be heard thundering from enormous speakers, alternating with joyful music. Dignitaries and residents of the respectable embassies that populate the town are all present. People have gone out to the streets, and the press is on a rush. After all, it is not every day that one gets to witness a presidential inauguration. Only one thing is missing: the president.
Having Hugo Chavez attend his own inauguration on January 10th, 2013, would have looked more like a reenactment of “Weekend at Bernie’s” than a presidential inauguration. Since early December, President Chavez has been away from Caracas (in Habana, Cuba), and the state of his health is still a tightly kept secret.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, elected presidents must be sworn in on January 10th of the first year of their term and take an oath before the National Assembly. Mr. Chavez was reelected for a third six-year term in the presidential elections held on October 7th, 2012. He won 54 percent of the vote against the 45 percent collected by Henrique Capriles, the candidate from a coalition of all the opposition parties. While so-called international accompaniers (the Venezuelan government chose not to allow observers) found no irregularities at the polls, the Chavez-controlled National Electoral Council’s website reveals a doubling of registered voters since 1999, and a surprising percentage of the registry is comprised of voters between the ages of 111 and 129. Authorities at the National Electoral Council have consistently refused to allow an independent audit of the voter registry.
For reasons that were not clearly disclosed by those at his bedside, Chavez missed his own party on January 10th. The official position of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is that, even in his condition, Chavez is still making decisions for the nation. Yet, no president was inaugurated, so who, then, is now in charge in Venezuela?
Many have tried to solve this Constitutional conundrum. The Venezuelan constitution is specific in terms of the logistics that should follow the presidential inauguration: the elected president must be sworn in on January 10th in front of the National Assembly, and, if this is not possible, the president must be sworn in before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. However, it fails to mention an alternative should the elected president be absent on the day of the oath. There is nothing in the constitution that allows for delaying the ceremony either. This has been interpreted by some as a clear indication that the constitutional presidential term must start on January 10th and end exactly six years later. Further, a vice president has yet to be chosen, and former Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s mandate ended on Jan 9th, 2013, at 11:59pm.
The Venezuelan constitution asserts that, in the case of an “absolute absence” of the elected president, the president of the National Assembly shall assume the position temporarily and call for new elections within 30 days. The prospect of having a chance to run their candidate against someone other than Chavez had those in the opposition elated. However, only certain circumstances constitute an absolute absence: death, resignation, a dismissal by the Supreme Tribunal, physical or mental illness permanently declared by a medical board designated by the Tribunal and approved by the National Assembly, dereliction of duty as declared by the Assembly, and popular revocation of the mandate. None of these circumstances has come to fruition, and, therefore, taking steps in this direction—however politically convenient it might seem for those opposed to Chavez’s 14-year regime—would be quite antidemocratic as it would fail to respect popular sovereignty.
The Chavistas have found a way to circumvent the constitutional entanglement. The Supreme Tribunal—Chavista-controlled for the past 14 years—declared the inauguration and oath to be a mere formality. Since President Chavez was reelected, his previous 2007 term is to be stretched through a legal interpretation they have coined “the continuity of power” until his health allows him to take the oath that would officially inaugurate his fourth term.
Running the show until Chavez returns is former Secretary of State Nicolás Maduro, who was appointed vice president in the waning months of Chavez’ last term and has continued to act as such despite the constitutional hiccups. On January 10th, during the inauguration-turned-State-propaganda-rally, Maduro emotively addressed the crowd, assuring them that Chavez, “the heart of Venezuela,” would be back and that the revolution would continue unflinchingly forward. He, however, failed to address how the revolution would face such pressing problems as rampant inflation rates and increasing violence and crime.
What remains to be seen is: whether Chavez will be healthy enough to continue governing or if Maduro can be a good enough proxy to lead forward a movement heavily centered around Chavez’s persona; whether civil society and the opposition coalition will remain powerless against the mantra of “the continuity of power,” which academics have called unconstitutional insistently; and whether the democratic international community will continue to turn a blind eye on the Venezuelan style of upholding the rule of law.