If Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s President, is so ill that he cannot attend his own inauguration for a fourth term in office, then he should do the responsible thing, and resign. The Jan. 10 ceremony is not just a technicality, but a political obligation spelled out in the constitution.
Even if the National Assembly and ultimately the courts have approved Mr. Chavez’s absence, Venezuelans deserve better.
Normally a constant presence in print, broadcast and social media, Mr. Chavez, 58, has not spoken publicly since his fourth surgery for cancer on Dec. 11 in Havana. He has not clarified what kind of cancer he has, or what his prognosis is. Medical updates reveal only that he is recovering from a “respiratory insufficiency” following a severe lung infection. Such is the mystery surrounding the illness that there are rumours circulating that Mr. Chavez has already expired, and that his immediate supporters are attempting to suppress this information. No independent medical assessment has been undertaken. Only his family and his political allies, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, have had access to him.
The regrettable handling of the crisis reflects the degree to which Mr. Chavez has corroded national institutions in Venezuela, eroding judicial and legislative independence during his 14 years in office. There are no meaningful checks and balances left on his authority. It is no surprise that the Supreme Court, stacked with Chavez supporters, ruled that under the constitution, Mr. Chavez can be sworn in at a later date, and even in another country. Government leaders are, implausibly, maintaining that Mr. Chavez is fulfilling his duties as head of state, even as he convalesces in Cuba. The Presidents of Uruguay and Bolivia are set to arrive on Thursday in Caracas to join a Chavez rally outside the presidential palace. Even Fidel Castro oversaw a more orderly transition, ceding control of the Cuban government to his brother, Raul, following his own bout of ill health in 2006.
Some analysts speculate that Mr. Chavez is too weak to give clear direction. “His allies may be stalling for time,” suggests Max Cameron, a University of British Columbia political scientist. The opposition has rightly challenged the court’s constitutional interpretation, and is warning of the possibility of a military uprising. They should keep up the pressure. The only way to resolve the political impasse in this country, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is either for Mr. Chavez to resume his duties or, if he is unable to do so, for an election to be called and a fit leader to take over, the sooner the better.