* Maduro's comments indicate Jan. 10 event may be postponed
* Ailing Chavez remains president, his No. 2 insists
By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS, Jan 4 President Hugo Chavez's formal
swearing-in for a new six-year term scheduled for Jan. 10 can be
postponed if he is unable to attend due to his battle to recover
from cancer surgery, Venezuela's vice president said on Friday.
Nicolas Maduro's comments were the clearest indication yet
that the Venezuelan government is preparing to delay the
swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or
calling a new election in the South American OPEC nation.
In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has
not been seen in public for more than three weeks. Allies say he
is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years
for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.
The political opposition argues that Chavez's presence on
Jan. 10 in Cuba - where there are rumors he may be dying - is
tantamount to the president's stepping down.
But Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an
interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Chavez was
sworn in at a later date by the nation's top court.
"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019
constitutional period starts on Jan. 10. In the case of
President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in
his functions," he said.
"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the
Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in
coordination with the head of state."
In the increasing "Kremlinology"-style analysis of
Venezuela's extraordinary political situation, that could be
interpreted in different ways: that Maduro and other allies
trust Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying
time to cement succession plans before going into an election.
Despite his serious medical condition, there was no reason
to declare Chavez's "complete absence" from office, Maduro said.
Such a declaration would trigger a new vote within 30 days,
according to Venezuela's charter.
Chavez was conscious and fighting to recover, said Maduro,
who traveled to Havana to see his boss this week.
"We will have the Commander well again," he said.
Maduro, 50, whom Chavez named as his preferred successor
should he be forced to leave office, said Venezuela's opposition
had no right to go against the will of the people as expressed
in the Oct. 7 vote to re-elect the president.
"The president right now is president ... Don't mess with
the people. Respect democracy."
Despite insisting Chavez remains president and there is hope
for recovery, the government has acknowledged the gravity of his
condition, saying he is having trouble breathing due to a
"severe" respiratory infection.
Social networks are abuzz with rumors he is on life support
or facing uncontrollable metastasis of his cancer.
Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a
huge shock for Venezuela. His oil-financed socialism has made
him a hero to the poor, while critics call him a dictator
seeking to impose Cuban-style communism on Venezuelans.
Should Chavez leave office, a new election is likely to
pitch former bus driver and union activist Maduro against
opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of
Capriles lost to Chavez in the October presidential
election, but won an impressive 44 percent of the vote. Though
past polls have shown him to be more popular than all of
Chavez's allies, the equation is now different given Maduro has
received the president's personal blessing - a factor likely to
fire up Chavez's fanatical supporters.
His condition is being watched closely by Latin American
allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors
attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.
"The odds are growing that the country will soon undergo
a possibly tumultuous transition," the U.S.-based think tank
Stratfor said this week.