* Socialist leader misses state of the nation address
* Chavez names new foreign minister from Cuba hospital
* President not seen since cancer operation on Jan. 11
By Daniel Wallis and Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS, Jan 15 Venezuelan Vice President
Nicolas Maduro gave a brief state of the nation address on
Tuesday in place of his ailing boss, Hugo Chavez, who has not
been seen in public since going to Cuba for cancer surgery more
than a month ago.
Maduro stood in for Chavez with a 10-minute speech before
Congress in which he defended the president's decision to rule
the OPEC nation from a hospital bed in Havana, despite
opposition calls for him to step aside and name a temporary
"We are following the constitution in an impeccable manner,"
Maduro, Chavez's heir apparent, told lawmakers, holding up a
copy of the 1999 charter Chavez helped write.
The brevity of the speech, in sharp contrast to Chavez's
nine-and-a-half-hour address last year, came as a surprise
following Maduro's month-long effort to impersonate Chavez's
Maduro offered no new information about the president's
cancer, which threatens to upend Chavez's self-styled socialist
revolution and convulse the political order of a country that
holds the world's biggest oil reserves.
Maduro said Chavez had named a former vice president, Elias
Jaua, as the new foreign minister, a move that supporters will
likely point to as a sign that the president is in control of
governance despite his prolonged absence.
Chavez said last year he was completely cured of cancer and
told parliament he believed God had sent him the disease to help
him "see better, think better, and study better." He went on to
win a new six-year term at an election in October.
Within weeks of his victory, however, the 58-year-old had to
return to Cuba for more treatment. He underwent his fourth
cancer operation in 18 months on Dec. 11, and has suffered
multiple complications since then.
Opposition leaders pounced on Maduro's address as a further
sign of institutional decay caused by the leader of a sovereign
nation governing in absentia from overseas.
"We are facing an illegitimate government," said opposition
stalwart Maria Corina Machado. "We demand that decisions about
Venezuela be made in Venezuela."
Should Chavez step down or die, a new election would likely
pit Maduro, 50, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the
40-year-old governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in
The government said in an update on Chavez's health on
Sunday that a lung infection had been controlled and his
condition was improving. It said he still needed help breathing,
but was conscious. Chavez has never said what type of cancer he
Maduro said earlier on Tuesday that senior members of the
government visiting Havana had briefed Chavez on Monday.
"He asked (Oil Minister) Rafael Ramirez about things ... we
could say our commander is climbing the hill again, he is
advancing," Maduro told a meeting of state governors at which he
shook hands with Capriles.
The opposition called on the Washington-based Organization
of American States this week to give it the chance to brief
members on Chavez's absence and what it said were developments
that threatened democracy in Venezuela.
Opposition leaders say a caretaker president should be
appointed and new elections held within 30 days of Chavez's
absence being made formal, as called for in the constitution.
Chavez's planned inauguration on Jan. 11 was postponed, but
the government says he remains president and that the ceremony
can be performed later before the Supreme Court.
Raising the risk of a confrontation, both the opposition and
the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) are planning marches in the
capital next Wednesday, Jan. 23.
The date is an emotive one for Venezuelans, recalling the
day in 1958 when military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez fled the
country amid widespread rioting and a coup by rebel soldiers.
Capriles has said any violence would only benefit the
"chavista" authorities ruling Venezuela in the president's
absence. Both sides have urged their followers not to fall for
In the meantime, economic policy decisions appear to be on
hold, including an expected devaluation of the bolivar currency
that economists and the private sector say is long overdue.
The main business chamber, Fedecamaras, released a statement
on Tuesday bemoaning the pressing need to deal with growing
imbalances in the economy of South America's top oil exporter.
"We are in an urgent moment that needs, without delay, the
adoption of rational and sound economic decisions," it said.
"Insecurity, instability, uncertainty and misguided economic
policies are the real cause of shortages and inflation."