CARACAS - With cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez hospitalized in Cuba, tens of thousands of flag-waving Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas on Thursday to inaugurate his new term without him.
Bands played patriotic anthems from street-side stages as citizens clad in the red of Chavez’s leftist movement poured out of buses to make their way on foot toward the Miraflores presidential palace. There, they staged a symbolic swearing-in of the people, in place of Chavez, who is too sick to re-take the oath of office himself. Shouts of “Chavez, Chavez!” and the anti-opposition “They will not return” could be heard as Chavista militants stoked the crowds with fiery speeches. On one stage, an evangelical religious service was underway, and street vendors sold Chavez memorabilia on the sidewallk. “I love the president,” said Pedro Brito, a 60-year-old law professor, in a red T-shirt with the slogan “I am Chavez.” “He has done a lot for poor people, the ones who had no place to sleep of food to eat. He has shown us how to love the country.” Gladys Guerrero, 35, said she traveled by bus from the eastern state of Monagas “to repay love with love.” Vice President Nicolas Maduro hosted a meeting of leftist Latin America presidents and other foreign representatives who have come to show support for the Chavez government in a period of deep uncertainty about the future. As pro-Chavez crowds built outside the presidential palace, the opposition called for counter-demonstrations on January 23, the day Venezuela’s modern democratic era began in 1958 with the ouster of its last military dictatorship.
“We want to especially address the people of Venezuela, and summon the entire country to give a massive demonstration of force in the streets,” said Miriam Montilla, a deputy speaking on behalf of the parliamentary opposition.
The Supreme Court cleared the ailing Chavez to indefinitely postpone his swearing-in and said his existing administration could remain in office until he is well enough to take the oath.
It was the last legal hurdle to a government plan for resolving the vacuum created by Chavez’s illness that met fierce resistance from the opposition, which had argued it was unconstitutional.
Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, said Chavez’s failure to turn up to his own ceremony had created “an indefinite situation in which we can be without a president, and without clear signs that the president is governing.”
Henrique Capriles, who ran unsuccessfully against Chavez in the October presidential elections, accepted the Supreme Court ruling as “binding” but said it did not end the uncertainties facing the oil-rich country.
But even without an official ceremony Venezuela’s government turned the day into a celebration of Chavez, who won re-election in October by an 11-point margin, despite concerns about his failing health.
In televised speeches, on Twitter and in work places, the government has made blanket appeals for Venezuelans to turn out. The military announced it was reinforcing security in the city and at other strategic points to ensure the day was observed peacefully.
And the government stopped a broadcaster, Globovision, from airing videos about the controversy over Chavez’s non-inauguration, saying they risked inciting political “intolerance.”
Globovision, known for being critical of the government, denounced the ban as an act of censorship.
It has been a month since Chavez, who is recovering from a fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana, has been seen in public - his longest stretch of absence in 14 years in power.
The government has said that he is recovering from complications from surgery, most recently a severe pulmonary infection that had resulted in a “respiratory insufficiency.”
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez’s medical condition was unchanged.
Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales, who read out the decision upholding the inauguration delay, also ruled out convening a medical board to assess the health of the president.
Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica was the first foreign leader to arrive here for Thursday’s show of support.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, and Foreign Ministers Hector Timerman of Argentina and Ricardo Patino of Ecuador were in attendance.
Maduro highlighted the expressions of support he had received from other leaders who are not attending, like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa said the Venezuelan leader’s absence would be a “blow” for Latin America.
Throughout his illness, first detected in June 2011, Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba for his latest surgery.
The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.