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What If Chavez Doesn't Show?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Venezuela is fast approaching a political crisis. President Hugo Chavez is supposed to be sworn in to a fourth term this week, but he hasn't been seen in public since December 11th. He's been in Cuba receiving treatment for a recurrence of pelvic cancer, and according to his associates, complications have put him in a, quote, "delicate situation." It's not clear if or when Chavez will return to Venezuela. NPR's Juan Forero is covering this story and he joins us on the line from Caracas. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, at this point, what do we know about Chavez' condition?

FORERO: Well, we know Chavez has had a tumor and that he's had four operations since June of 2011. But there's no word on what kind of cancer he has, where exactly it's located, if it's an aggressive malignant cancer. What's happened since he's gone to Cuba is that his ministers have gone on air to talk about the gravity of the situation and that he has what they've called a severe respiratory infection. So, that has some here wondering if he's in a coma or hooked up to a machine to help him breathe. The lack of information has simply fed swirling rumors. And for many Venezuelans, all of this is quite astonishing because Chavez was leader who would normally hold forth on television every day, sometimes for hours at a time. He was a constant in their lives. And for now, at least, he's gone.

MARTIN: So, you say his advisors are calling the situation grave. Are they saying anything about his return?

FORERO: The latest indications from Chavez' top two lieutenants is that he won't be back for his swearing-in. On Friday, the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, in a long interview with state television, said that the constitution does not mandate that the president take the oath of office on the 10th - that's this Thursday. The constitution is somewhat vague on the point. It actually says the president should be inaugurated on the 10th before the National Assembly. But then it goes on to say if he can't be there then the Supreme Court can swear him in. Maduro says that's the likely option and that it can happen at a later date. And on Saturday, the president of the National Assembly, a guy named Diosdado Cabello, said the same thing. So, we're talking later date when Chavez would return, although we don't know when that would be.

MARTIN: What about the political opposition in Venezuela? What's their response?

FORERO: Well, the opposition is opposing the government on this - no surprise there. They point out that the constitution says that if the president can't govern anymore because he's dead of because he's so incapacitated that he can't operate, then the president of the Assembly would be in charge, or the vice president. It sort of depends on the dates when these things occur. Then a new election must be called. But both Maduro and Cabello say the opposition is simply trying to create instability. They call such points of view nothing more than psychological warfare.

MARTIN: You mention a couple of different possibilities for leadership after Chavez. But if he isn't sworn in on Thursday, who is in charge then?

FORERO: Oddly enough, Chavez is in charge. He's not here. He's in Cuba. We haven't heard from him and likely won't, at least in the coming days, but he's in charge. That's what's his aides are saying. Maduro, who's the vice president, was pretty clear that he's not in charge and does not want to be in charge. He says he's simply following orders and is doing so at the president's will. Keep in mind, though, that we don't even know that the president is conscious. Maduro hasn't said.

MARTIN: There's obviously a great deal of turmoil in the government right now. How is all of this going over among ordinary Venezuelans?

FORERO: It's an unusual time here. Many people are still on Christmas holiday. So, Caracas, the capital, is very quiet, eerily silent in a way. But I went to the main public square to talk to Chavez' supporters and they were strongly supportive of Maduro and Cabello and said they didn't understand why the opposition is demanding to know more details about Chavez's health. They said that their comandante, their commander, will be back - maybe not on Thursday, but that he'll be back. And because they recently re-elected him, they said that the will of the people is clear; that the country should simply be patient and wait for him to return.

MARTIN: NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela. Thanks very much, Juan.

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