CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro gave a brief state of the nation address yesterday in place of his ailing boss, Hugo Chavez, who has not been seen in public since going to Cuba for cancer surgery more than a month ago.
Maduro stood in for Chavez with a 10-minute speech to Congress in which he defended the president’s decision to rule the OPEC nation from a hospital bed in Havana, despite opposition calls for him to step aside and name a temporary leader.
“We are following the constitution in an impeccable manner,” Maduro, Chavez’s heir apparent, told lawmakers, holding up a copy of the 1999 charter Chavez helped write.
The brevity of the speech, in sharp contrast to Chavez’s nine-and-a-half-hour address last year, came as a surprise following Maduro’s month-long effort to impersonate Chavez’s bombastic charisma.
Maduro offered no new information about the president’s cancer, which threatens to upend Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution and convulse the political order of a country that holds the world’s biggest oil reserves.
Maduro said Chavez had named a former vice president, Elias Jaua, as the new foreign minister, a move that supporters will likely point to as a sign that the president is in control of governance despite his prolonged absence.
Chavez said last year he was completely cured of cancer and told parliament he believed God had sent him the disease to help him “see better, think better, and study better.” He went on to win a new six-year term at an election in October.
Within weeks of his victory, however, the 58-year-old had to return to Cuba for more treatment. He underwent his fourth cancer operation in 18 months on Dec. 11, and has suffered multiple complications since then.
Opposition leaders pounced on Maduro’s address as a further sign of institutional decay caused by the leader of a sovereign nation governing in absentia from overseas.
“We are facing an illegitimate government,” said opposition stalwart Maria Corina Machado. “We demand that decisions about Venezuela be made in Venezuela.”
Should Chavez step down or die, a new election would likely pit Maduro, 50, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 40, the governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in October.