To Venezuelans, it is becoming clear that Chavez may well not return by Thursday, a key day in the political calendar. The 58-year-old former paratrooper is supposed to be inaugurated that day for a fourth term that would extend his presidency until 2019.
Opposition leaders say that would leave a power vacuum that by law should shift authority to an interim leader of the leftist government and trigger fresh elections, a scenario that could end the socialist government that has transformed one of the world’s great oil powers. That is unlikely to happen, however, with the president’s top aides sending strong signals over the weekend that they were scrambling to postpone the inauguration.
“I am clear that the president may not be able to take the oath in five days because of his condition, but what’s the problem?” said Javier Ramirez, 54, who works on ideological training in Chavez’s Socialist party and joined the crowds over the weekend at Bolivar Plaza. “If El Comandante cannot be here, we will be the commander. We will be Chavez.”
Indeed, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez has said would succeed him if he is unable to return to power, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello have gone to great lengths to display a united front, one completely opposed to any interpretation of the constitution that would shift power away from the president.
In a sense, that has helped create an air of serenity.
But some here say it feels like the calm before the storm that would descend on this country of 29 million should Chavez fail to return to power, as the president himself publicly contemplated before flying to Havana on Dec. 10.
“It is a crisis situation that you have an elected leader on his death bed,” said David Smilde, a University of Georgia expert on Venezuelan politics and co-editor of “Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture Under Chavez.”
“Chavez is very clearly near the end. You can imagine him recovering, but it appears he is on his death bed.”
Since Chavez first announced he had undergone cancer surgeries in June 2011, his condition has been largely cloaked in secrecy. There have been four operations, but he has not said what kind of cancer he has, exactly where it is located or what the prognosis is.
Chavez’s aides have only added to the uncertainty over the past month.