CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez’s fervent followers still assemble in the capital’s main public square, decked in the bright red of their leader’s movement, to chant revolutionary songs that envisage the president leading the country far into the future.
But Chavez, who has dominated public life here since the late 1990s, is nowhere to be seen. He no longer gives his trademark bombastic speeches, nor does he hold forth on television like a game-show host. On Sunday, he remained in Cuba, where he has been for nearly a month, presumably convalescing after undergoing surgery to remove what he called “some malignant cells” in his pelvic region, from which doctors have struggled to extricate a cancerous tumor.
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.
A day after Chavez’s Dec. 11 operation, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on a government Web site that Chavez might not be back for the swearing-in. Then on Christmas Eve, Maduro, the vice president, told state television he had spoken with Chavez by phone and that he was up and walking.
By New Year’s Eve, Chavez was suffering from “new complications,” Maduro said in a televised address. Then on Thursday, Villegas said Chavez had a “severe” respiratory infection.
“We are always informing, with the truth,” Maduro said in a carefully choreographed interview on state television Friday.
But opposition leaders said the government is probably shielding unpleasant details of Chavez’s health, leaving some Venezuelans to conclude that the president may be on life support, or worse.
“Trying to make the country believe that the president is governing is absurd to the point of being irresponsible,” Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, head of the Democratic Unity coalition of Chavez opponents, said at a news conference last week.
The government’s adversaries say that a commission should be sent to Cuba to determine whether Chavez is fit to remain president.
They note that the constitution directs that if the president dies or is too ill to govern, then a new election must be held within 30 days.
The constitution says the inauguration of a president should take place on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the swearing-in cannot take place before the assembly, then it should take place before the Supreme Court.
Maduro and Cabello have seized on that second clause to say that the constitution permits the inauguration to be postponed.
“Get this into your heads: Hugo Chavez was elected president, and he will continue to be president beyond Jan. 10,” Cabello said Saturday, directing his words to opponents. “You should have no doubt about that.”
Maria Corina Machado, an opposition member of the National Assembly, said it has become clear the inauguration is considered by the government’s ruling circle to be a mere formality.
“Never in 200 years of our history has the destiny of the country been decided outside of the country,” she said. “What they want is to let January 10th pass like it’s any other day, that it is simply a formality because Chavez was reelected.”
For the president’s most zealous followers, though, such criticisms amount to a concerted effort to destabilize the government.
“I’m a revolutionary, and from here, my commander, I’ll be in charge,” said Jazmin Fuentes, 56, taking a break from chanting leftist songs in support of Chavez.
“I love him, and from here in Bolivar Plaza I send him a revolutionary greeting, with love, to say that the people are standing with you, my commander.”