Latin America & Caribbean

Opponents seek Chavez court ruling

Capriles with the Venezuelan constitution
Capriles said only the Supreme Court could solve Venezuela's "constitutional crisis"

Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles has urged the Supreme Court to rule on a dispute over what happens if President Hugo Chavez is not sworn in.

Mr Capriles says the constitution sets 10 January as a deadline, and if Mr Chavez cannot be sworn in, the National Assembly leader should act as caretaker president until new elections are held.

The government argues the inauguration is a formality for an incumbent leader.

Mr Chavez, in hospital in Cuba after cancer surgery, is unlikely to attend.

In a news conference to discuss the constitutional row over Mr Chavez's inauguration, Mr Capriles said Venezuelans had voted for President Chavez, not his vice-president and ministers.

With 48 hours to go until the inauguration, it was inconceivable that the government had still not revealed if Mr Chavez would be able to attend, said Mr Capriles.

"There is a constitutional conflict in Venezuela. I don't know what the Supreme Court magistrates are waiting for," he said.

"The country is waiting for a clear interpretation of what the constitution says."

'Avoid confrontation'

Mr Chavez, 58, has been in power since 1999 but has not been seen in public since his latest operation last month, and government officials have acknowledged that he has suffered complications caused by a lung infection.

His condition was "stable", and he was "responding to the treatment", said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas in his latest update.

Mr Capriles said the constitution states that Mr Chavez's term ends on 10 January. The Speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should take power, albeit temporarily, if Mr Chavez is unfit to take his oath on Thursday, Mr Capriles said.

"Mr Chavez does not cease to be president if he cannot attend the inauguration. But you cannot have a power void, and that is in the constitution."

Government officials have stated that Mr Chavez will remain in power beyond 10 January, as his absence is only temporary. Attorney General Cilia Flores said that his oath can be taken at a later date.

Mr Cabello called Chavez supporters to take to the streets of Caracas on Thursday to show support to President Chavez.

He added that foreign heads of state would be at the Miraflores Presidential Palace on inauguration day.

Mr Capriles, who has recently been elected governor of Miranda state, said he would do anything to avoid a confrontation.

"We are not going to call the people to take to the streets on 10 January. That is what the government wants. We are not going to fall for that."

He added that the country has "serious economic problems" that are being overlooked.

Henrique Capriles was defeated in the 7 October presidential election. He received 44% of the vote to 55% of Mr Chavez.

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