CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remained on his sickbed in Cuba yesterday while thousands of supporters rallied in his honour on the day he should have been sworn in for a new six-year term in the South American OPEC nation.
The postponement of the inauguration, a first in Venezuelan history, has laid bare the gravity of Chavez’s condition after complications from a fourth cancer operation in his pelvic area.
It has also left his chosen heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro – a former bus driver who shares his boss’s radical socialist views – in charge of day-to-day government until there is clarity over whether Chavez will recover.
The president, whose legendary energy and garrulous dominance of the airwaves had often made him seem omnipresent in Venezuela since taking power in 1999, has not been seen in public nor heard from since his surgery on Dec. 11.
“Only God knows what will happen,” William Medina, a 49-year-old worker, told Reuters amid crowds of red-clad supporters milling around the presidential palace, many waving banners and posters bearing their hero’s face.
“But we are ready to take on what he taught us, because each one of us is a Chavez. We are ready to continue with socialism, because that is the only way to save planet Earth.”
Venezuela’s 29 million people are anxiously watching what could be the last chapter in the extraordinary life of Chavez, who grew up in a rural shack and went on to become one of the world’s best-known and most controversial heads of state.
The saga also has huge implications for the likes of Cuba and other leftist allies in Latin America that have benefited for years from Chavez’s subsidized oil and other largesse.
A clutch of foreign friends, including the presidents of Uruguay, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, attended yesterday’s events in Caracas despite Chavez’s absence.
“There’s a man who is battling for his life; he is in your hearts and that’s what matters,” said Uruguayan President Jose Mujica from a stage outside the Miraflores palace, the scene of dramatic moments in Chavez’s rule including his return from a failed 2002 coup and euphoric speeches after election victories.
Sukhoi jets, which Venezuela bought from Russia after a diplomatic dispute with Washington, rumbled above the demonstration, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd.
Venezuela’s opposition leaders are furious at what they see as a Cuban-inspired manipulation of the constitution by Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, who is the head of the National Assembly, and other Chavez allies aimed at preventing the naming of a caretaker president due to Chavez’s absence yesterday.
Henrique Capriles, who lost October’s presidential election to Chavez, said the opposition had no plans to risk violence by encouraging supporters to hold a counter-demonstration.
“Who wins from a conflict scenario?” he asked. “They win, the pseudo-leaders who are not the owners of the country.”