If Chávez Can’t Be Sworn In, Is He Still President of Venezuela?

Venezuela has decried its neighbors' loose ways with their constitutions, but the ruling party in Caracas does much the same — especially when it comes to Chávez

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Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

A man walks past a mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Caracas on Jan. 9, 2013

Updated on Jan. 9, 2013

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro is an ardent defender of democracy’s institutional processes — at least in other countries. Last summer Maduro, who is also Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, flew into Asunción as part of a delegation of the Union of South American Nations and declared — correctly — that the Paraguayan Congress’ summary ouster of leftist President Fernando Lugo had been “a violation of all due process.” Maduro was also a justifiably outspoken critic of the 2009 coup that overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

But Maduro seems to have more trouble recognizing constitutionally cavalier conduct, including his own, inside the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. On Tuesday, he announced that his boss, recently re-elected President Hugo Chávez, who is lying in a Havana hospital bed struggling to recover from his latest round of cancer surgery, would miss his swearing-in tomorrow, Jan. 10. That’s the inauguration date set by Venezuela’s constitution, and the charter suggests that if a President can’t be sworn in, a new election needs to be held within 30 days. Maduro rejected that notion, insisting that Chávez can be sworn in at a later date and that an inauguration is just a “formality” anyway. Nothing to get all that worked up about.

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For all we knew, Maduro may have been right: perhaps the constitution’s inauguration deadline applied only to Presidents-elect and not sitting Presidents like Chávez. But then again, Venezuela’s political opposition could have been right: sitting President or not, it insisted, each six-year term ends on Jan. 10, meaning that if Chávez couldn’t be sworn in tomorrow, he wouldn’t be President on Jan. 11. The bottom line is that the 1999 constitution, written shortly after Chávez came to power, is a maddeningly vague guide on the matter — and in any modern democracy it’s the judicial branch, namely Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), and not Vice Presidents or opposition politicians, that is supposed to determine what the document really means to say. The fact that Chávez’s government appeared so hypocritically dismissive of that precept, one that it so self-righteously monitors among its neighbors, simply threatened to discredit his socialist revolution inside and outside Latin America.

Venezuela’s high court, as if responding to international criticism of the government’s disregard for separation of powers, finally weighed in this afternoon and ruled that Chávez’s inauguration can indeed be constitutionally postponed. Critics will understandably complain that the TSJ is packed with Chávez loyalists. (But then, many believe George W. Bush won the U.S. presidency during the disputed 2000 election because the Supreme Court, which had the final word, was majority conservative.) Still, it matters that the institution actually charged with making the ruling at least came forward and made it.

If it hadn’t, Venezuela, whose politics are already bitterly polarized, may well have faced an even more conflictive constitutional crisis. Admittedly, Tuesday’s peremptory decision by Maduro and the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, to postpone Chávez’s inauguration until he’s recovered stemmed in large part from a desire to preserve Venezuelan stability as well as Chavista power. But it was also based on a fairly loose reading of the constitution. In fact, it was based on words the charter doesn’t even contain. Article 231 says if “for any supervening reason” a President can’t be sworn in before the National Assembly, he or she will do it “before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.” But Maduro took the liberty of interpreting that also to mean the inauguration can take place “at a later date” — something Article 231 never says. Hence the demand by opposition leaders like Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, whom Chávez routed in the Oct. 7 presidential election, that the high court resolve the issue.

Chavista leaders like Maduro and Cabello, as they usually do whenever anyone dares contradict la revolución, accused Capriles and the opposition of attempting to “destabilize” the government or even stage “a coup.” But the TSJ essentially agreed with their assessment that Chávez will continue being President even without being sworn in tomorrow; and that until Chávez is able to return to Caracas for an inauguration, the constitution lets Maduro fill in as President for as long as 180 days, at which point the National Assembly is supposed to decide whether Chávez’s absence should be considered “permanent.”

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But given el comandante’s semidivine status among his supporters, who control the National Assembly, and given how ill-prepared they seem to run Venezuela without him, it’s doubtful they would ever rule Chávez, who is also fighting postsurgery respiratory complications, “permanently absent” unless he were actually deceased. That still leaves Venezuelans, who know little else about Chávez’s actual condition — he hasn’t been heard from in a month — with the unsettling possibility of a protracted if not precarious government limbo. This at a time when a raft of serious problems, not least of which are South America’s worst violent crime and one of the world’s highest inflation rates, needs to be addressed inside the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation.

A broader concern is the democratic double standard that keeps rearing its head under Chávez’s rule. After Venezuelans in 2007 rejected Chávez’s original bid to abolish presidential term limits, for example, he held another referendum in 2009 and won — even though the constitution barred him from revisiting the issue during the same term. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the lack of due process Maduro decried in Paraguay can be glaring as well in Venezuela, where an arbitrary Chávez code has disqualified hundreds of opposition politicians from running for office simply because they were accused of corruption. Defamation laws threaten to jail anyone who insults the President and government officials — despite the fact that before Chávez came to power, leftists and other dissenters were themselves often locked up for the same thing. And Judge María Lourdes Afiuni is still under house arrest (she had previously been in prison) after she angered Chávez in 2009 by releasing a corruption suspect because prosecutors had failed to bring him to trial during the time stipulated by Venezuelan law.

Afiuni was, in fact, following the kind of due process that Maduro claims to embrace so fervently but treated so nonchalantly this week. Inaugurations aren’t mere “formalities”; they’re part of the democratically sacred rite of ushering in power, even when it involves a re-elected head of state. Which is why Venezuela again runs the risk of looking less like “21st century socialism,” as Chávez calls his revolution, and more like 20th century Latin America.

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