* Chavez not heard from since Dec. 11 cancer surgery
* Opposition accuses government of violating constitution
By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Ore
CARACAS, Jan 8 Venezuela will postpone the
inauguration of President Hugo Chavez for a new term due to
health problems, the government said on Tuesday, another sign
the socialist leader's cancer may be bringing an end to his 14
years in power.
The 58-year-old former soldier who has dominated the South
American OPEC nation since 1999 has not been heard from since
surgery on Dec. 11 in Cuba - his fourth operation since he was
diagnosed with an undisclosed type of cancer in June 2011.
The delay has outraged opposition leaders who insist that
Chavez must be sworn in before the National Assembly on Jan. 10
as laid out in the constitution, or temporarily step aside and
leave an ally in power.
"The commander president wants us to inform that, based on
his medical team's recommendations, the post-operative recovery
should extend past Jan. 10," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said
in a letter read to the legislature.
"As a result, he will not be able to be present at the
National Assembly on that date."
The letter said authorities would seek another date for the
inauguration ceremony but did not say when it would take place,
nor give any time frame for Chavez's recovery or his return from
Rather than being sworn in by the legislature, he would take
his oath at a later date before the Supreme Court, the letter
said, as allowed by the constitution.
Government leaders insist Chavez is completely fulfilling
his duties as head of state - even though official medical
bulletins say he has a severe pulmonary infection and has had
The government has called for a massive rally of supporters
outside the presidential palace on Thursday, and allies
including Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and Bolivian leader
Evo Morales have confirmed they will visit Venezuela this week
despite Chavez's absence.
But the unprecedented silence by the president - famous for
regularly speaking for hours in meandering broadcasts - has left
many convinced he could be in his last days.
His resignation or death would upend politics in the
oil-rich nation where he enjoys a deity-like status among poor
supporters thankful for his social largesse.
His critics call him a fledgling dictator who has squandered
billions of dollars from crude sales while dashing the
independence of state institutions.
The constitution does not specify what happens if the
president does not take office on Jan. 10.
Opposition leaders argue that Congress chief Diosdado
Cabello should take over as mandated by the constitution if the
president's absence is formally declared. Cabello, a close
Chavez ally, has ruled that out, saying the president continues
to be in charge.
"Venezuela is not a monarchy. Ours is not the Cuban system
where power is passed around without an election," opposition
leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October
presidential election, told reporters on Tuesday.
Supporters have held near-daily vigils for Chavez's
recovery, while opposition activists accuse the president's
allies of a Cuban-inspired manipulation of the situation.
Vice President Maduro, who Chavez named last month as his
successor, has taken over the day-to-day running of the
government and looks set to continue in the role past Thursday.
The mustachioed former bus driver lacks Chavez's charisma,
but he has sought to imitate the president's style with
rambunctious attacks on the opposition and televised
With the micro-managing Chavez away, major policy decisions
in Venezuela, such as a widely expected devaluation of the
bolivar currency, appear to be on hold.
Opposition predictions of fighting within the ruling
Socialist Party have not materialized, however, with Maduro and
Cabello in particular pledging unity despite rumors of rivalry.