Chavez ally floats idea of postponing inauguration

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The president of Venezuela's National Assembly has floated the idea of postponing Hugo Chavez's Jan. 10 inauguration while he recovers from surgery in Cuba, a proposal that reflects mounting concern over the president's tough fight against complications following his fourth cancer-related operation.

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello told reporters Tuesday that 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 Wednesday 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. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas last week said that if it was not possible for Chavez to return in time, Venezuelans should be prepared to understand, though he didn't elaborate.

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 on Jan. 10," 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.

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. A president can be sworn in even if temporarily incapacitated, but would need to be conscious and in Venezuela, he said.

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 Vice President Nicolas Maduro to take his place.

Cabello is one of the few government officials who have traveled to Cuba since Chavez's surgery Dec. 11, and his comments carry weight with the president's United Socialist Party of Venezuela, known as PSUV for its initials in Spanish. Cabello has been a close ally of Chavez throughout his presidency and is an influential vice president of the party.

The 58-year-old president has not spoken publicly since his 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 quickly stanched.

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."

He said that given the president's condition a new presidential election to replace Chavez, sooner or later, "seems inevitable."

The Venezuelan leader underwent the operation after tests found his cancer had come back despite previous operations, 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 would be important to judging where his recovery stands. He said that if Chavez is being given high doses of morphine for pain, such medication also could be a factor.

Based on the information provided thus far 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. He has said he travels to Cuba for his surgeries because his cancer was detected by doctors there. Chavez's opponents have criticized the secrecy, demanding a full medical report.

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 Associated Press in a telephone interview.

He said that recovering enough to function as president will probably take weeks or 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.

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Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.

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