Court must rule on Chavez crisis, opposition says

Venezuela's top opposition leader on Tuesday urged the Supreme Court to rule on whether cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez's re-inauguration can be postponed, as his government argues.

"I do not know what the judges of the Supreme Court are waiting for. Right now in Venezuela, without any doubt whatsoever, a constitutional conflict has arisen," Henrique Capriles said.

The charismatic Chavez, voted in as Venezuela's youngest ever president in 1998, is scheduled to take the oath of office on Thursday after being re-elected to another six-year term in October.

But he is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, his fourth operation in 18 months, and is unlikely to make it to the ceremony in Caracas, setting off a storm over what comes next.

The government says the swearing in is a mere formality that can be delayed, but the opposition says the constitution must be respected.

The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.

The opposition contends that Chavez must at least be declared temporarily incapacitated and replaced on an interim basis with the speaker of the National Assembly, a formula the government has so far vehemently opposed.

"There must be a response from our institutions in the face of this conflict," said Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October by an 11-percent margin but gave him the toughest political fight of his 14-year tenure.

Capriles also urged Latin American leaders -- Chavez has long been the figurehead of the anti-US left in the region -- to stay away from a rally convened by the government for Thursday in place of the inauguration.

So far Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino of Ecuador are the only ones to confirm their attendance.

"Chavez's health is no longer in our hands," said Mujica in an interview with the Montevideo newspaper La Republica. "Our function is to back the government and people of Venezuela."

The government also got a boost from Latin American heavyweight Brazil, which said a constitutional process was in place to assure continuity in the event that Chavez was unable to be sworn in.

Capriles urged regional leaders not to succumb to "a game by a political party" -- alluding to Venezuela's ruling party. He mentioned by name the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia and Ecuador.

Earlier, the country's main opposition coalition turned to international organizations for support.

It warned the Organization of American States of an "alteration of the constitutional order" if the government retains its grip on power regardless of Chavez being unable to take the oath of office.

In Washington, the State Department said Venezuelans should decide for themselves what to do without resorting to violence, calling for a "broad based discussion."

"And it needs to be decided in a manner that is free, fair, transparent, is seen as ensuring a level playing field in Venezuela," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez's medical condition had remained "stationary" since the latest complication from surgery was reported four days ago.

Chavez is suffering from a severe pulmonary infection that has resulted in a "respiratory insufficiency," officials have said.

The leftist government and the conservative opposition brandish conflicting interpretations of the constitution.

Chavez's allies call the president's swearing-in a "formality" that can be fulfilled sometime after January 10.

But, in a letter to OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza, the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Aveledo, argued that under the constitution the current administration's term ends on January 10 and cannot be extended.

The government has not said one way or another if Chavez will return for the inauguration, but it seems only a remote possibility.

"We rule out absolutely nothing," said National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello. "But we're not going to get to the 10th and not know what we are going to do. We know what we're going to do."

Part of the plan is to hold a huge pro-Chavez rally, with the participation of as yet unidentified foreign leaders, in a reminder of the 55 percent support that won the leftist firebrand a convincing re-election.

A key opposition leader, meanwhile, has called for street protests if the government pushes past January 10 without a swearing-in, raising the risks of confrontation in the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Throughout his illness, first detected in June 2011, the 58-year-old Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba for his fourth and most difficult round of surgery.

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