A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds up a banner… (Ariana Cubillos/AP )
CARACAS, Venezuela — The show must go on, Venezuelan leaders promised, and so it was Thursday.
Tens of thousands of President Hugo Chavez’s red-shirted followers convened outside the presidential palace, three regional leaders flew in for the festivities, and Venezuelan officials delivered fiery revolutionary speeches.
It was inauguration day. But the man who has held center stage here for 14 years was far away, in Cuba, presumably in a hospital convalescing after what Venezuelan officials have described as complex cancer surgery.
Chavez would not be there to give his traditional thunderous speech from the balcony of the Miraflores Palace. Yet to the throngs of Chavistas — many holding huge, framed photographs of their leader and wearing T-shirts that read, “I am Chavez” — it almost didn’t matter. Chavez could not be sworn in for his fourth term, but he officially remained head of state, despite the mystery surrounding his physical condition.
And with the pseudo swearing-in, the government delivered its message: With or without Chavez, his self-styled revolutionary government is firmly in control.
“This is an inauguration, you could say,” said supporter Ronny Tijera, 37. “The people who reelected him on October 7th are inaugurating him. He is inaugurated. He is still governing. His cabinet is operating. He’s doing a good job.”
But the absence of the president, who left for Cuba on Dec. 10 for a fourth round of cancer surgery and has not been seen in public since, has sparked a conflict between government officials and opposition groups. The latter declare that although Chavez won reelection in October, he cannot remain president if he has not taken the oath of office.
The crisis picked up steam Tuesday, when Vice President Nicolas Maduro confirmed what many Venezuelans had expected: that Chavez would not return in time for his inauguration. On Wednesday, the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that he could delay his inauguration past the Jan. 10 date set by the constitution.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales went on to say that the ceremony could take place “at a time and a place to be determined” by the court. She also said that the court saw no merit in appointing a medical board to determine the state of Chavez’s health.
For the opposition and some constitutional experts, the end of Chavez’s latest six-year term means that his government has come to a close. They say the president of the National Assembly should take over on an interim basis, which would still give Chavez up to 180 days to return and be sworn in — a position roundly rejected by the government.
“What the Supreme Court has done, following the ruling-party line, is tell Venezuelans that we could be without a government for an indefinite time,” Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, told reporters Thursday.
But the opposition was powerless to head off the day’s events, which only underscored Chavez’s continued hold on power.
Troops stood ramrod straight alongside the massed Chavistas, and fighter jets flew overhead. The government also gave great prominence to the arrival of presidents Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, as well as dozens of diplomats.
The goal of his visit, Mujica told Venezuelan state television, was to express support for Chavez.
“You hardly see that sort of solidarity anywhere in the world,” Mujica said.
Morales, a former indigenous leader, said Chavez should be celebrated for weakening U.S. global influence.
“He’ll soon be back with us again, to keep fighting to liberate the people of the world,” Morales said in a speech.
The rally certainly fired up Chavez’s base.
Edinson Romero, 22, said that Venezuelans had been adequately informed about the president’s condition and that it didn’t matter anyway, because Chavez would be home soon.
“Yes, I’m completely sure our commander will return, safe and sound,” Romero said. “He’ll continue running the country. He is still president, only he needs to get better, just like anyone else. Like any human being.”