It was supposed to be a moment of triumph -- the inauguration of a third six-year term for President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, secured by a comfortable victory in an election last October.
On Jan. 8, however, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro wrote a letter to the National Assembly on Chavez's behalf, stating, in effect, that he was too ill to appear before the assembly as planned two days later. Instead, he would be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date.
With that, Venezuela entered a twilight zone of constitutional uncertainty and potential upheaval.
Chavez has been in a hospital in Havana for a month, battling "severe" complications after his fourth operation for an unspecified cancer. By the opposition's reading of the constitution, he should now be declared at least temporarily absent from the presidency. The Speaker of the assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should then act as interim president while Chavez's health is evaluated.
Cabello, who is also vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), says this would amount to a coup, and that the opposition is seeking political advantage from the president's illness. Since Chavez was already in office, officials claim, the start of the new term is a formality. The Supreme Court, which arbitrates on constitutional disputes but has not ruled against the government since 2003, said the postponement was legal.
Chavez has turned over some powers to Maduro, but technically, his term as vice-president -- an appointed post, not an elected one -- lapsed on Jan. 10.
Maduro denies he is the acting president, though he seems to be. Despite the seriousness of Chavez's condition, underlined by his inability to sign the letter to the assembly himself, the official view is that the president will make a complete recovery. No medical bulletins have been issued since Chavez, a former army officer who has ruled Venezuela since 1999, fell ill in 2011. The nature of his cancer has never been revealed.
The constitution provides for a medical board, appointed by the Supreme Court, to examine the president, but the court has ruled that out. If he were to die, or if the government were to acknowledge he is permanently incapacitated, the constitution mandates a fresh presidential election within 30 days. Before undergoing his latest operation, Chavez named Maduro as his chosen candidate in that event.
The problem is that nobody else enjoys Chavez's unquestioned authority over the PSUV. Many chavistas are on the far left. Others, including many in the armed forces, are more pragmatic or are opportunists -- some of this group have made fortunes from government.
Maduro is an ardent admirer of Cuba's Fidel Castro, as is Chavez. Cabello, who has influence in the army, is seen by the left as a closet right-winger and militarist. The PSUV's inner circle also includes Rafael Ramirez, who runs PDVSA, the state oil monopoly that provides the regime with much of its revenue, and ultra-leftist Adan Chavez, the president's elder brother, as well as Jorge Arreaza, the science minister and son-in-law of the president.
After a meeting of this group in Havana, Maduro said he and Cabello had sworn a unity pact in the presence of Chavez. Since the president is in no condition to chair meetings, some analysts speculated that President Raul Castro of Cuba may have done so. The Castros have a history of brokering deals among competing factions of their leftist allies in the region. Both Cabello and Maduro deny any such factions exist -- but, after Cabello's re-election as Speaker, Maduro stressed the importance of maintaining "military-civilian unity."
For Cuba's communist regime, the survival of Chavez's "Bolivarian Republic" -- named for Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's independence hero -- is vital. Cuba receives around 100,000 barrels a day of virtually free Venezuelan oil. Energy-poor Cuba has had its eye on Venezuela ever since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, but got what it wanted there only with Chavez. With the Venezuelan president now incommunicado in a state-run Havana hospital, Cuba's leaders are in a strong position to influence the succession.
Antonio Ledezma, mayor of Caracas and a leader of the opposition Democratic Unity alliance, complained the president had been "practically kidnapped by a foreign government." He demanded to know "who is giving the instructions? Is it Raul Castro? Whose hands is the Venezuelan government in?"
It is not only the opposition that is worried. Many in the Venezuelan armed forces resent being bossed about by Cuban officers and intelligence agents. The notion that Maduro might be a puppet of Havana is potentially damaging to his chances of consolidating his position as Chavez's successor.
Instead of an inauguration, the government planned to rally the faithful and its foreign allies in a mass demonstration against a supposed opposition "coup plot." It is leaving more serious matters unattended, however. A devaluation, needed to help bridge a huge fiscal gap, is now hostage to a resolution of the power vacuum at the top.
Not for the first time under Chavez, Venezuelans face shortages of staple products such as chicken, corn oil, flour and sugar. This time, however, there is no Chavez at the helm to defuse any popular frustration.