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In the Bolivar Plaza of downtown Caracas, supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrive carrying photographs of their leader and singing songs urging him on. Music blares from loudspeakers, repeating over and over, "Chavez, my commander, is here to stay."
Chavez, however, is most definitely not here, and increasingly many Venezuelans wonder if he'll ever be back. He flew to Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally, for an operation that took place on Dec. 11. Before leaving for his fourth cancer surgery, Chavez named a successor.
What little has been reported about his health since has not been good. Right after the surgery, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas went on state television to say Chavez was suffering from internal bleeding. Then, at the end of December, things seemed to worsen.
In a statement read from Havana, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said there were complications and there were risks. Days later, the word from the government was that Chavez had a severe lung infection.
Never in Chavez's year-and-a-half battle with cancer have officials said what kind of cancer he has or what the prognosis is. Instead, state television plays commercial after commercial showing Chavez with his followers and telling groups of young men to work hard for the betterment of the country.
Yet, while heartwarming videos of el Comandante air, government officials have offered signals that Chavez will not return by Thursday to take the oath of office and start his fourth presidential term.
The nation's constitution says the inauguration should take place that day before the Congress, but Vice President Maduro has called that a formality.
In an interview on state television, Maduro said there's flexibility built into the constitution, and that because the president was re-elected in October, there's continuity from one term to the next.
Maduro noted that the constitution permits Chavez to also be sworn in by the Supreme Court, and that the date can be pushed back.
"That doesn't [make] sense at all," says constitutional lawyer Carlos Ayala. He says the constitution is clear and doesn't support the government's argument.
"It's not that we elect a president for an undetermined term, for an uncertain term," he says. "We elect a president for a mandate to take place beginning one day and finishing one day. That's what constitutional democracy is all about."
Ayala says if Chavez can't show up Thursday, the constitution says the head of the Congress becomes interim leader.
Chavez could later return and be sworn in.
What's vital, Ayala says, is that the public learn more about Chavez's health, perhaps through a medical board commissioned to travel to Cuba.
"None of that is being done," he says. "We have just been told that he's coming, that we have already had enough information."
At the Plaza Bolivar in central Caracas, though, Chavez's red-shirted supporters say they've heard enough about the president's health.
One of them is Milia Duarte, 50, a self-styled "Chavista."
"There have been reports every day," she says. "They've been clear. I'm pleased and feel like I'm informed."
Duarte also says she's hoping for Chavez to return.
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