Church warns Chavez govt over inauguration

4 min

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela criticised the government on Monday for failing to provide more details about Hugo Chavez’s state of health and issued a veiled warning about any attempts to circumvent constitution.


Venezuela's Catholic church issued a veiled warning to the government Monday against overriding the constitution by delaying cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez's inauguration for a new term as president.

"At stake is the good of the country and the defense of ethics. To alter the constitution to attain a political objective is morally unacceptable," Venezuela's conference of bishops said.

The church weighed in on an escalating crisis with just four days to go before Chavez, who is in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery, is supposed to take the oath of office for another six year term.

His vice president has argued that the swearing-in can be delayed indefinitely, calling it a 'formality,' and that his current administration can continue in office until a new one can be sworn in.

That has provoked an outcry from the opposition, with one key leader calling for street protests if the government pushes past the January 10 inauguration date set by the constitution without the president being sworn in.

"People should get ready to protest and rebel against what will be a failure to uphold the constitution," said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the opposition Justice First party.

"We are preparing a real campaign, which will involve going to institutions, countries, embassies and organizations outside of the country to let them know that authorities are trying to twist the constitution due to an internal problem."

In a statement, the church said the president's prolonged sickness "puts at grave risk the political and social stability of the nation."

The public is "confused, and a good part of it angry," it said, because not a single medical report on his condition has been released.

"The government has not told the people the whole truth, which it has the full right to receive with certitude; it has only communicated, with evident difficulty, its political truth."

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, taking reporters' questions as he toured an elementary school, said the government needed time to study the document.

But he warned the church "not to fall into the temptations of the past, but on the contrary to support the stability, tranquility and progress of the country.

Chavez, the 58-year-old former paratrooper who has dominated the country personally and politically for 14 years, has not been seen in public since he underwent surgery in Havana nearly a month ago, his longest absence ever.

Last week, the government announced that he was suffering complications from a "severe pulmonary infection" that had resulted in a "respirator insufficiency."

But skepticism of the government's account has run high, with many believing his condition is far worse than disclosed.

Although the government has not directly said Chavez is too sick to attend his own inauguration January 10, it has begun laying out a legal rationale for him to continue in office while putting off the oath-taking to a later date.

With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued Friday that the charter provides "a dynamic flexibility" that allows the president to take the oath of office before the Supreme Court at some later date.

The position was reaffirmed Sunday by Venezuelan Attorney General Cilia Flores, who argued in a television interview that Chavez "could be sworn in upon his return in front of the Supreme Court."

Under the constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.

The National Assembly speaker is supposed to run the country in the interim. But assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a leader of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has bowed to Maduro's plan to keep the current government in place.

"The president will continue being president beyond January 10, nobody should have any doubt about that," Cabello said Saturday, accusing the opposition of fomenting a "coup d'etat."

Despite doubts about his fitness to serve, Chavez has refused to relinquish the office, leaving Maduro in charge of running the country without transferring the full powers of the presidency.

The burly, mustachioed Maduro has been all over the state-run media in a quasi presidential role.

Venezuelans have seen him making speeches to red-shirted followers, watching from the visitor's gallery as Chavistas reasserted their dominance over the National Assembly, and talking in emotional tones about Chavez's difficult battle with cancer.


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