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Hugo Chavez Misses Inauguration Day, But Supporters Fill The Streets

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remained in Cuba, where he's receiving treatment for cancer, and was not present for his planned inauguration in Caracas on Thursday. However, thousands of supporters gathered outside the presidential palace to show their backing. (AFP/Getty Images)

Correction: A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that the presidents of Argentina and Ecuador had attended the inauguration celebration for Hugo Chavez.

Three Latin American presidents turned up, as did foreign diplomats. And thousands of President Hugo Chavez's supporters flooded the streets Thursday outside the presidential palace in Venezuela's capital, Caracas.

But Chavez himself didn't show — he remained in Cuba, incapacitated after his latest round of cancer surgery.

Still, the carefully choreographed show did go on, and Chavez's aides said he remains in charge.

There was guitar-laden music. And the salsa that's much beloved in Venezuela. On a huge stage were Venezuela's top leaders, along with the presidents of Uruguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

There were also countless people like Florencio Rondon, 67, who came carrying a sign like so many others: "I Am Chavez," it read.

"He's not here, but we're all here as if he were with us," Rondon said.
"He is the greatest thing we have. He may not be here, but he lives in our hearts."

The level of support on the streets reflected the strong backing Chavez's government still maintains after 14 years and three terms in office.

On inauguration day, as on other big days in Venezuela's political calendar, Chavez usually gives a booming, revolutionary speech from the balcony of the Miraflores palace.

Hospitalized In Havana

But Chavez has been in Havana for the past month. He underwent complex surgery for cancer, and he hasn't been seen or heard from since. He's been receiving treatments since June 2011, for what has been described only as cancer in the pelvic region.

The government says he remains the president even though the Constitution says he had to be sworn in Thursday for a fourth term.

The president's absence has generated what opposition leaders have been calling an institutional crisis. Earlier this week, opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said one government ends and another is supposed to begin on this date. And if Chavez can't be here, Borges says "an official absence" must be declared and an interim leader must take over.

The controversy dominated Venezuela this week.

In a speech in the National Assembly, Borges asked, "Who's governing in Venezuela?"

Chavez supporters in the assembly quickly drowned out Borges by yelling the president's name. Lawmakers then voted to give Chavez the time he needs to get better and return to take the oath of office.

And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the delay was fine. The president of the court, Luisa Morales, says there's no need now for a swearing in because Chavez is a re-elected president, winning the ballot last October with 54 percent of the vote.

The court argued that there's continuity from one government to the next and that the swearing in is a formality.

Back in front of the presidential palace, Edinson Romero, 22, said he came to show his support for Chavez and his self-styled revolution.

"He's a sitting president, elected by the people," said Romero, adding,
"It's the same government, so the swearing in can wait."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Venezuela, today was inauguration day for President Hugo Chavez. Foreign diplomats and three presidents showed up, and thousands of Chavez supporters flooded the streets outside the presidential palace. But Chavez himself didn't show. He's still in Cuba, incapacitated after cancer surgery. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Caracas.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: As in all inaugurations, the scene was carefully...

CORNISH: in Cuba, incapacitated after cancer surgery. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Caracas.

FORERO: As in all inaugurations, the scene was carefully choreographed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: There was folkloric, guitar-laden music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: ...and the salsa that's much beloved in Venezuela. On a huge stage sat Venezuela's top leaders, who gave speeches, and so did the presidents of Bolivia and Nicaragua. There were also countless people like Florencio Rondon. He's 67 and came carrying a sign much like all the others people held. It said: I am Chavez.

FLORENCIO RONDON: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He's not here, but we're all here as if he were with us, Rondon says. He's the greatest thing we have. He may not be here, but he lives in our hearts. The level of support on the streets reflected the strong backing Chavez's government still has after 14 years and three terms in office. On inauguration day, as on other big days in Venezuela's political calendar, Chavez usually gives a booming revolutionary speech from the balcony of the Miraflores palace.

Today, though, he's in Cuba, still. He left for Havana a month ago for a complex cancer surgery, and he hasn't been seen or heard from since. The government says he remains the president even though the constitution says he has to be sworn in today for a fourth term. The president's absence has generated what opposition leaders have been calling an institutional crisis.

JULIO BORGES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Earlier this week, opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said one government ends, and another is supposed to begin on this date. And if Chavez can't be here, Borges says, an official absence must be declared, and an interim leader must take over. The controversy dominated Venezuela this week. In a speech in the national assembly, Borges asked...

BORGES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Who's governing Venezuela? Chavista lawmakers quickly responded, drowning out Borges and yelling the president's name.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

FORERO: Lawmakers then voted to give Chavez the time he needs to get better and return to take the oath of office. And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the delay was fine.

LUISA MORALES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: The president of the court, Luisa Morales, says there's no need now for a swearing in because he's a re-elected president, winner of an October election. The court argued that there's continuity from one government to the next, and that the swearing in is a formality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORERO: Back in front of the presidential palace, Edinson Romero, who's 22, said he came to show his support for Chavez and his self-styled revolution.

EDINSON ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He's a sitting president, elected by the people, says Romero. He said it's the same government, so the swearing-in can wait.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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