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Venezuelan court says inauguration day delay for Chavez is OK

By Mariano Castillo and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
January 10, 2013 -- Updated 0323 GMT (1123 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "Venezuela is practically without a head of state," opposition lawmaker says
  • NEW: "The government of Venezuela is paralyzed," rival Henrique Capriles says
  • NEW: There is no vacuum of power, Vice President Nicolas Maduro says
  • Venezuela's high court says a delay of Chavez's swearing-in is permitted

(CNN) -- Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won a battle over the country's leadership Wednesday, but the political war isn't over.

Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled that Chavez will begin a new term on Thursday, even though health problems will prevent him from attending an inauguration before the National Assembly.

But several key questions are looming: How long will Chavez be in Cuba for cancer treatment? How dire is his medical situation? Will simmering political tension about who's running the country boil over?

Opposition politicians have argued that delaying Chavez's swearing-in leaves no one in charge of Venezuela once the current term ends. Chavez allies -- including a majority of lawmakers in the country's congress -- have said he should remain in power while taking the time he needs to recuperate.

The 58-year-old Venezuelan president has been treated for cancer in Cuba for the past month, most recently battling respiratory complications after surgery.

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Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling backs the government's position that the chain of command in Venezuela stays the same, even as one presidential term ends and a new one starts.

"Despite the 10th of January beginning a new constitutional period, a new swearing-in is not necessary in his position," said Luisa Estella Morales, president of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Calling it a "historic moment," Morales said that the court's interpretation of the constitution was debated by all the justices.

The Supreme Court weighs in

Morales' remarks addressed a number of questions that have surged over the country's leadership and political future, but they left others unanswered.

Read more: Chavez will not be sworn in on inauguration day

Under the constitution, Chavez can be sworn in at a later date before the Supreme Court, she said.

The constitution states that a medical board can be convened to consider whether a president is incapacitated, but at no time has the Supreme Court considered that step, Morales said.

She noted that lawmakers have authorized Chavez's leave from the country for health reasons. And even though he can't make it to Venezuela to be sworn in Thursday, Chavez is neither temporarily nor permanently absent from his presidential post.

A permanent absence would have triggered new elections under the constitution.

Some Chavez supporters have said it is possible for the Supreme Court justices to travel to Cuba and perform the oath of office at the Venezuelan Embassy there. The Supreme Court president said it is too early to think about that.

"We know that it's necessary and undoubtedly something that will be complied with, but at this moment, we could not speculate about when, where and how the president will be sworn in," she said.

Read more: Chavez illness fuels speculation

Her comments echoed a statement read to lawmakers by the vice president on Tuesday, stating that a delayed inauguration is legal.

That the Supreme Court, stacked with Chavez loyalists, sided with the president's party is not surprising, but it remains to be seen whether the ruling will prevent political turmoil.

Chavez supporters, opposition square off

On Wednesday, both sides called for peace but seemed still to be bracing for a political fight.

Opposition lawmakers declared an emergency and decried the court's ruling as a sign that Chavez's party had swayed the country's judiciary.

In an interview with CNN en Español on Wednesday evening, lawmaker Maria Corina Machado asked for international bodies such as the Organization of American States to weigh in on what she said was a "serious alteration of constitutional order."

"Today Venezuela is practically without a head of state," she said.

Meanwhile, Wednesday night, Vice President Nicolas Maduro headed up a Cabinet meeting and welcomed a group of regional foreign ministers.

In remarks broadcast on national television, he said the court's decision was "sacred," stressed that Chavez's government remains intact and accused the opposition of ignoring the constitution and trying to stir up trouble.

"In Venezuela, the revolution continues with more strength than ever," Maduro said.

Supporters and critics of Chavez both point to the country's constitution but offer wildly different interpretations of what it says.

Henrique Capriles, the man Chavez defeated at the polls in October, said after Wednesday's ruling that members of the opposition should focus on bigger battles.

He said Venezuela's government is "paralyzed" and accused Chavez's allies of trying to instigate conflict by threatening the opposition rather than fixing the country's problems.

"We have a responsibility to drive toward a destination that is not conflict, nor is it war, nor is it anything that the government is trying to push," he said. "We have to dedicate all of our energy, all of our actions, so that all Venezuelans have peace and tranquility."

'Faith that our comandante will return'

Chavez has not been seen in public and officials have not released any photographs of him since he arrived in Havana for his fourth cancer operation in early December, fueling speculation that his health is worse than the government is letting on.

It's a hot topic on the streets of the country's capital.

"We have faith that our comandante will return to Venezuela and with good health," Caracas resident Nicolas Medina said.

He said he wasn't worried about unrest as inauguration day approached.

"Nothing is going to happen," Medina said. "It's going to be a normal day. The sun is going to shine and the sun will go down and the 11th will begin."

Others say they have faith, but want more proof that the president is recovering. Caracas resident Rommel Quintera said he wants to see a message directly from the president, who in the past has called into state television to provide updates while he recuperated from cancer treatment in Cuba.

"None of us know anything about him -- some say he is dead, or he's not dead -- we have to wait," Quintera said. "We need to hear from him what has happened. He is a president who has always given answers to the people. In small things and big, he has always shown his face for everything."

As night fell on Caracas Wednesday, debates over the country's future filled the airwaves. Chavez's voice remained notably absent.

CNN's Paula Newton and Rafael Romo and journalist Osmary Hernandez contributed to this report.

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