At the core of the confusion is one word: “permanently.” The Constitution says that Chávez, who in October won re-election to a new six-year term, is supposed to be sworn in a week from today on Jan. 10. But his condition would appear to preclude that happening. So here’s what Article 233 says: “When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election…shall be held within 30 consecutive days.” The article defines “permanently unavailable” as death, resignation, removal from office, certified permanent physical or mental disability or a recall. None of those—at least according to information from Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who visited Chavez in Havana this week—applies to Chávez’s current situation. What to do then?
First consider the demi-divinity conferred on Chávez by his followers—who, thanks largely to his anti-poverty programs, gave their firebrand comandante an 11-point re-election victory margin even though Venezuela suffers South America’s worst murder rate and one of the world’s highest inflation rates. As Chávez went under the knife last month, Maduro gushed, “You have to return, and we your children will be waiting for you. We’ve sworn to be loyal to you beyond this life…your soldiers forever.” Hence the reluctance of Maduro and other top Chavistas, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, to declare Chávez “permanently unavailable” to take office, despite the Jan. 10 deadline, as long as he’s still living. As Aristóbulo Istúriz, an influential Chavista and new Governor of eastern Anzoátegui state, said today: “If the President can’t be sworn in [on Jan. 10] he should just remain President until he can be sworn in.”
Yet according to the letter of the Constitution Chávez displays so reverentially, his current presidential term ends on Jan. 10. The Constitution does tap the Vice President to fill in when the President “becomes temporarily unavailable to serve.” But that directive doesn’t apply after Jan. 10 if Chávez isn’t sworn in—if his presidency, in effect, isn’t rebooted—because technically there won’t be a President to fill in for.