CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez does not have to take the oath of office as scheduled today to begin his fourth term as president, a finding that some legal experts assailed as unconstitutional.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales said Wednesday that Mr. Chavez's absence is acceptable, given that his service will be uninterrupted, and therefore does not fall under constitutional guidelines that could have forced him to attend the swearing-in ceremony or relinquish power.
"Although Jan. 10 marks the beginning of a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in of the president is not necessary in [Chavez's] status as president-elect because there is no interruption in the exercise of his authority," Judge Morales said. Mr. Chavez "is not a new president who has to take possession; he is the president whose performance has been approved by the people."
The Venezuelan Constitution calls for presidents to be sworn in at the National Assembly on Jan. 10, but also provides an alternative in which the Supreme Court conducts the inauguration "if, for any unforeseen reason," the congressional ceremony cannot take place. To have the Supreme Court administer the oath or delay the swearing-in, the president-elect must ask for a temporary postponement.
Government officials say Mr. Chavez is in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery and in possession of his mental faculties. But the president, who officials say is suffering from "respiratory insufficiency," has not been seen or heard from since the surgery Dec. 11. Some Venezuelans think that could mean that he is comatose and thus unable to govern, which would require a new presidential election.
The court's ruling followed the National Assembly decision Tuesday to give Mr. Chavez permission to be away in Cuba indefinitely while he recovers from his fourth cancer surgery in 19 months. The exact type of his cancer has not been publicly divulged.
Constitutional law expert Armando Rodriguez Garcia said there were "inconsistencies" in the court ruling, saying the constitutional clause requiring the oath "covers the institution, not the person." Mr. Chavez's current presidential term, and thus his authority, ends today, and he must be sworn in to resume it, the professor said.
"If Chavez is unable to be sworn in tomorrow, then power must transfer to the legislative branch in the person of the president of the National Assembly, so that there is no power vacuum," said Mr. Rodriguez Garcia, a Central University of Venezuela faculty member who was one of 38 law professors who signed a petition Tuesday warning that Mr. Chavez's absence from the ceremony would be unconstitutional.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a close confidante and former army comrade of Mr. Chavez's who participated in a 1992 coup attempt led by Mr. Chavez, said Tuesday that under no circumstances would he replace Mr. Chavez as temporary leader.
The Supreme Court ruling raised the question of who will be Venezuela's interim leader while Mr. Chavez is absent. Judge Morales said the executive branch, including the current vice president and ministers, should remain in place and continue their duties. That means Vice President Nicolas Maduro will likely take the reins of government. The parameters of his power may be evident today during a mass rally in Caracas that will be held in support of Mr. Chavez. Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Uruguay's President Jose Mujica are among foreign leaders expected to attend.
But a strict reading of the constitution indicates that Mr. Maduro's term as vice president ends today as well, as do those of the rest of Venezuela's Cabinet officials, according to Mr. Rodriguez Garcia. Thus, some experts say, Mr. Maduro and other officials cannot assume those high offices unless a legally sworn-in president appoints them.
On the eve of his Dec. 9 departure for Havana, a visibly despondent Mr. Chavez raised the prospect that he might not return from this latest setback.