CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's vice president said on Wednesday that the government is still aiming for President Hugo Chavez to be sworn in for a new term as scheduled next month, saying his condition has been improving after his cancer surgery in Cuba.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro declined to speculate when asked about scenarios if the ailing president is unable to take the oath of office on Jan. 10. He took the stance amid mounting concerns over the president's tough fight against complications following his fourth cancer-related operation, and a day after National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello floated the idea of postponing Chavez's inauguration if necessary.
"We're concentrating on prayer, on faith, on medical treatment that is among the best in the world, so that our commander in chief and president upholds his sacred duty on Jan. 10," Maduro said at a news conference. "Day after day ... he has been getting better, and he's the commander of a thousand victories, he's the commander of miracles."
Maduro, whom Chavez designated as his chosen successor before the surgery, also said that if Chavez isn't able to be sworn in as planned, "he left clear, public instructions about any scenario."
The 58-year-old president has not spoken publicly since his Dec. 11 surgery for pelvic cancer, and on Tuesday the government said he had a respiratory infection, though it was controlled. Chavez also suffered bleeding during the six-hour operation, which the government has said was promptly stanched.
Cabello raised the idea of postponing the inauguration on Tuesday, telling reporters it was simply his personal opinion and not an official proposal.
"You can't tie the will of the people to a date," Cabello said in remarks published by the newspaper El Nacional. "My idea is that we can't see the laws and the constitution from the restrictive point of view."
The constitution says the president should be sworn in for a new term on Jan. 10. Cabello expressed hope that Chavez could still be back for his swearing-in.
But Venezuelan analyst Edgar Gutierrez said that Cabello appeared to be sending a message that it might take longer, and that he believes pushing back the date is an option.
"It's the clearest signal that the president won't be in conditions to be sworn in," Gutierrez said. "Diosdado is preparing the field of opinion."
Cabello noted the constitution also says that if a president is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, he may be sworn in by the Supreme Court. "And it doesn't put a date" for that, he said, noting that there is no mention of a date in the article dealing with a swearing-in before the Supreme Court.
When Maduro was asked about the idea at Wednesday's news conference, he said: "We don't think it's favorable to enter into the field of speculation."
Cabello is one of the few government officials who have traveled to Cuba since Chavez's surgery, and his comments carry weight with the president's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, known as PSUV for its initials in Spanish. Cabello is an influential vice president of the party, and he was among the officials present at Maduro's news conference.
Asked about the possibility raised by Cabello, Maduro said that "any matter that has to be settled, we have our ... Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, which has shown a great ability to interpret any subject in the constitution that's necessary."
Venezuela's opposition coalition took issue with Cabello's proposal, saying in a statement that the president should appear and be sworn in on the scheduled date, and that "it can't be modified on the basis of personal opinions or political conveniences." If the president does not appear, the opposition statement said, the constitution is clear that he should be declared absent and a new election should be called.
Law professor Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, however, agreed with Cabello, saying the constitution allows for the swearing-in to be before the Supreme Court at a later date, which it doesn't specify.
"The only thing that ends Jan. 10 is the current (presidential) term," said Gonzalez, a professor at Central University of Venezuela.
Gonzalez said that lawmakers can request a medical report "to see whether he's getting better, whether he can come or not." And if not, he said, a transition process should then begin, including the calling of a new election.
If a president-elect dies or is declared incapacitated before the swearing-in, the constitution says the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote would have to be held within 30 days. Chavez has said that if such a vote is held, his supporters should elect Maduro to take his place.
Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor has ruled out the possibility of authorities going to Cuba for a swearing-in, saying a president cannot take the oath of office outside Venezuela.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the consulting firm IHS Global Insight in London, said that given the control that Chavez's movement has over all state institutions, including the Supreme Court, "any arrangement that could suit the ruling PSUV party political strategies is possible.
"This could include postponing the date of the inauguration for the new term, if needed, or even taking advantage of any legal technicality that could see Chavez formally inaugurating his mandate from Cuba," Moya-Ocampos said. "This will all, of course, depend on Chavez's state of health and what is more strategically convenient to those making the decisions."
The Venezuelan leader underwent his latest operation after tests found his cancer had come back despite previous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
He had said in July that tests showed he was cancer-free, and he was re-elected in October. But Chavez said later he had been suffering swelling and pain that he thought was due both to his exertion during the campaign and to his prior radiation treatments.
Independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said that given the government's account of the surgery and complications, they think it is unlikely Chavez would be able to stand up and take the oath of office as scheduled. They also said the vague information available makes it difficult to know the likely course of Chavez's recovery.
Dr. Gustavo Medrano, a lung specialist at the Centro Medico hospital in Caracas, said knowing whether Chavez is on a respirator and in an intensive care unit, and whether he is being given high doses of morphine for pain, would be important to judging where his recovery stands.
Based on the information provided about Chavez's condition, Medrano said that on his inauguration date "he shouldn't be on his feet."
Throughout his treatments, Chavez has kept secret several details about his illness, including the precise location of the tumors and the type of cancer.
Dr. Carlos Castro, scientific director of the Colombian League Against Cancer in Bogota, said much will depend on how Chavez's complications evolve, including the respiratory infection and other infections or bleeding that can develop after such surgery.
"Personally I don't think he can be sworn in on that scheduled date. I don't think Chavez is going to be in shape to," Castro told the AP in a telephone interview.
He said that recovering enough to function as president will probably take at least one or two months if all goes well. He noted that Chavez had mentioned being in serious pain before the operation.
"He still isn't out of danger, and he is still in what I'd call a critical phase in which anything can happen," Castro said.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ian James contributed to this report.