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With Chavez Ill, Loyalists And Government Battle Over Inauguration Date

Hugo Chavez will not appear on Thursday to be sworn in for his fourth term as president. Chavez is undergoing treatment for cancer in Cuba and the government says his inauguration will be postponed. The opposition says the government is running roughshod over the constitution.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is supposed to be sworn in for a fourth term tomorrow. But that's not going to happen. Chavez is in Cuba where he's undergoing treatment for cancer. And there's a bitter dispute over whether the inauguration can be postponed. The government says yes it can. The opposition says Chavez loyalists are running roughshod over the constitution.

From Caracas, Venezuela, we're joined by NPR's Juan Forero for more on this story. And, Juan, tell us about Venezuela's supreme court. They weighed in on this controversy today. What did they say?

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Well, that was the big news today. The supreme court ruled that Chavez does not have to be inaugurated to remain as president. Luisa Morales, who's the president of the court, said that because Chavez was re-elected in October, then there's continuity from one term to the next. She says Chavez will have to take the oath, but it can be in the future when he comes back to Venezuela.

CORNISH: Of course, that's been a major question here, right, when Chavez might be well enough to return to Venezuela. Many in Venezuela are saying the government isn't being open about Chavez's health.

FORERO: That's the problem here. No one really knows about the president's health. He hasn't been seen in a month. Government officials have only provided, you know, very scant details. And the public doesn't know what kind of cancer he has or where he suffers from it in his body, what the prognosis is. The opposition has asked for a medical board to travel to Cuba to determine the president's health, but the court today said there was no merits for that. The opposition, though, says no one is in charge, that Chavez is simply not running the country.

CORNISH: So who is in charge? I mean, what happens next?

FORERO: Vice President Nicolas Maduro seems to be in charge. That's the man Chavez said would be his successor if he weren't to return. Also, there's another power broker here. The name of that guy is Diosdado Cabello. He's head of the Congress. They, of course, say Chavez is in charge and that the inauguration is simply a formality. They back up that position by saying that there is an article in the constitution that says that the president can be sworn in before the supreme court. But that article doesn't say what date he needs to be sworn in.

CORNISH: So how is the opposition responding to this? What's their next move?

FORERO: Well, they say that as of tomorrow, Chavez's government ends and that there should be an interim leader, the head of the National Assembly. That's Diosdado Cabello, the guy I just mentioned. They say that the president could come back, that he'd have up to 180 days to come back under the constitution. But they say that the country must first find out what his condition is. The opposition says they'll go to the Organization of American States in Washington to file a complaint. But that really won't do much good. The OAS is pretty weak and toothless.

CORNISH: And, Juan, in the meantime, how is the public reacting to all of this?

FORERO: Well, it's been interesting. Most of the people who've been out on the street so far have been pro-government people. The government has gotten together some rallies. There were rallies over the weekend, and people are out there. You see them on state television and they're in the Plaza Bolivar, which is the main public square here. And then the opposition, what they've been doing is, you know, basically going at it in the National Assembly, in the Congress. They, up to this point, say they're not going to convene protests. They - some of the leaders have said that that won't do any good. But we'll have to see. Tomorrow is another day, and it's the big day here in Venezuela.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela. Juan, thank you.

FORERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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