Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court later on if he's not able to take the oath of office before lawmakers next week because of his struggle with cancer, his vice president said Friday.
The stance announced by Vice President Nicolas Maduro conflicts with the argument by some opposition leaders that the president of the National Assembly would have to take over as interim president if Chavez were unable to attend his inauguration as scheduled next Thursday.
Maduro's remarks sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone Chavez's inauguration due to his delicate condition after surgery in Cuba. His position appeared likely to generate friction between the government and opposition over the legality of putting off the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur on Thursday before the National Assembly.
Maduro says Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in office beyond the inauguration date stipulated in the constitution, and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a later date to be determined.
"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez," Maduro said in a televised interview.
As for the opposition, Maduro said, "they should respect our constitution." The vice president held up a small blue copy of the constitution and read aloud passages relating to such procedures.
Opposition leaders have demanded that the government provide more specific information about Chavez's condition, and say that if the president doesn't return to Venezuela by inauguration day, the president of the National Assembly should take over the presidency on an interim basis. But Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
"Maduro's comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez's serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority, and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance."
As for Chavez, Maduro reiterated that the president is fighting a "complex" health battle but expressed hope that eventually "we'll see him and we'll hear him."
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said on state television, speaking with Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
"The president right now is the exercising president. He has his government formed," Maduro said. He read a portion of the constitution detailing procedures for declaring an "absolute absence" of the president, which would trigger a new election within 30 days, and declared that "none of these grounds can be raised by the Venezuelan opposition."
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the National Assembly, he may take the oath office before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not mention a date.
Others disagree. Ruben Ortiz, a lawyer and opposition supporter, argued that Maduro is wrong and that under the constitution the inauguration date can't be postponed.
If Chavez is not in Caracas to be sworn in on Thursday, Ortiz said in a phone interview, "the president of the National Assembly should take charge." He added that "there is a formal separation between one term and the other."
But Shifter said the opposition is on the defensive, with its only tactic being to insist that Jan. 10 is the established date.
"Chavez controls all the key institutions, and it's doubtful that most Venezuelans will get too upset about defying what seems a fairly minor constitutional provision," Shifter said. "Attacking the government because it has no objection to the Supreme Court swearing in Chavez after Jan. 10 is not exactly a winning political strategy for the opposition."
A delay also serves the government's purposes, Shifter said. "The government wants more time, whether to see if Chavez gets better, or to consolidate their ranks and further splinter and demoralize the opposition."
Venezuelan lawmakers will meet Saturday in a session that could shed more light on what steps Chavez's allies plan to take.
Legislators will choose a president, two vice presidents and other leaders of the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could eventually end up being the interim president of Venezuela under some circumstances.
Brewing disagreements over how to handle a possible transition of power could also be aired at the session.
"If the opposition thinks it will find a space in the National Assembly to conspire against the people, it's mistaken once again. It will be defeated," National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said in a message on Twitter, saying the legislature will stand with Chavez.
The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency" more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.
Chavez hasn't spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation in Cuba, and the latest announcement suggests a deepening crisis for the 58-year-old president.
But Maduro criticized rumors surrounding Chavez's condition, saying: "He has a right to his privacy, and to recover."
The government's account of Chavez's complications raised the possibility that he might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question and didn't give details of the president's treatment.
Independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the government's account indicated a potentially dangerous turn in Chavez's condition, but said it's unclear whether he is attached to a ventilator.
Dr. Gustavo Medrano, a lung specialist at the Centro Medico hospital in Caracas, said he has seen similar cases in cancer patients who have undergone surgery, and "in general it's very bad, above all after a surgery like the one they performed on him."
"I don't know the magnitude of the infection he has, how much of his lungs have been compromised, how much other organs are being affected. That's not clear," Medrano said.
"What's most likely is that he's on mechanical ventilation," Medrano added. However, he said, while respiratory deficiency means there is an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood, depending on the severity it can be treated in various ways.
Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, agreed that such respiratory infections can run the gamut from "a mild infection requiring antibiotics and supplemental oxygen to life-threatening respiratory complications."
"It could be a very ominous sign," Pishvaian said. He said it's possible Chavez could be on "life support," but added it's impossible to be sure without more details.
Opposition leaders have blamed vague information coming from the government for persistent rumors about Chavez's condition, and demanded a full medical report.
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011 for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. He also has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
He was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that the cancer had returned. Chavez said before the operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional criticized what it called an "information vacuum" in an editorial on Friday, saying Venezuelans are in the dark because "no one speaks clearly from the government." The newspaper called the situation reminiscent of secrecy that surrounded the deaths of Josef Stalin in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China.
State television repeatedly played video of a song in which rappers encourage Venezuelans to pray, saying of Chavez: "You will live and triumph." A recording of a speech by Chavez appears during the song, saying: "I will be with you always!"
AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/venezuela/
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap