Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in before the Supreme Court even if his cancer treatment keeps him out of the country beyond his January 10 inauguration date, his vice president said Monday.
Nicolas Maduro said the constitution will be applied, without indicating whether Chavez would be sworn in from Venezuela or from Cuba, where he is recovering from his fourth cancer operation since June 2011.
Amid a swirling debate across the nation sparked by the uncertainty of the ceremony, opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he was ready to accept a possible delay in the inauguration.
"If the president cannot be present on January 10 to take the oath of office before the National Assembly, the constitution has the answers," said Capriles, who lost the presidential election in October to Chavez.
His remarks put him at odds with other opposition leaders eager to call new elections if Chavez is unable to return to the country on time.
Chavez supporters claim that their leader can be sworn in late in accordance with Venezuela's 1999 constitution approved by socialist ex-paratrooper Chavez in his first year in office, even though opposition leaders will likely insist on holding a new presidential vote.
Analysts say Chavez could not take an oath of office abroad, even if it is at a Venezuelan embassy with members of the Supreme Court present.
"If his permission needs to be extended beyond January 10, the constitution would go into action and he would have to take the oath before the Supreme Court," Maduro said on state television after a Christmas Eve mass in Caracas to pray for Chavez's speedy recovery.
All Chavez cabinet ministers joined Maduro and clergy in the mass at San Francisco Church to pray for the leader's health and his return to the country, with some even making offerings before the altar.
Under Venezuelan law, if Chavez resigns before the inauguration or the president otherwise has an "absolute absence," National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello would temporarily take office and elections would be held within 30 days.
In cases of the president's "temporary absence," the constitution says the vice president shall fill in for up to 90 days, and the National Assembly can extend that for a further 90 days.
Before flying to Havana, Chavez designated Maduro -- a former bus driver and union activist -- as his political heir.
Chavez, 58, is experiencing a "slight improvement" in his condition as he follows doctors' orders to rest, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a radio and television address.
He said the president is in touch with his closest relatives and has been analyzing the results of regional elections on December 16 in which the ruling party won 20 of 23 governorships, snatching four states previously run by the opposition.
The face of the Latin American left for more than a decade and a firebrand critic of US "imperialism," Chavez asserted before embarking on his arduous re-election campaign earlier this year that he was cancer-free.
But he was later forced to admit he had suffered a recurrence of the disease. He returned to Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, for surgery and follow-up treatment.
Venezuela, which sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves, has never confirmed the president's cancer type, nor which organs are affected, but doctors removed a tumor from his pelvic region last year.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]