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With Chavez ill and inauguration near, uncertainty reigns in Venezuela

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 1:41 PM EST, Fri January 4, 2013
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is scheduled to be sworn in for new term
  • It's unclear whether the ailing leader will be able to attend January 10 ceremony
  • Several key questions about the country's leadership are looming
  • Chavez has not been seen publicly since he underwent cancer surgery last month

(CNN) -- Lawmakers erupted in applause at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's inauguration six years ago. An orchestra played. Chavez beamed.

It's a different scene this year.

Read more: Chavez battling 'severe' lung infection, respiratory failure

Chavez is scheduled to take the oath of office for a new six-year term in just a few days, but it's unclear whether he'll even be in the country. Chavez has been recovering from surgery in Cuba, where he is undergoing cancer treatment. Top aides describe the president's condition as "complicated" and "delicate."

The uncertainty over what will happen on inauguration day -- January 10 -- has roiled this oil-rich country of more than 28 million people. Newspapers and airwaves are full of questions about the future.

Read more: As rumors about Chavez's health swirl, Venezuelan opposition demands details

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What happens if Chavez doesn't return?

What will happen if Chavez loses his battle with cancer or becomes too incapacitated to govern? What if he's too ill to attend the swearing-in ceremony?

Venezuela's constitution provides clarity about will happen if Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated -- both of those scenarios would lead to new presidential elections. Debate rages, however, over what will happen if Chavez remains in Cuba and does not take the oath of office in Caracas.

Here's a look at several scenarios that could play out in the coming days, based on a reading of Venezuela's constitution and interviews with experts:

If lawmakers declare Chavez permanently absent from office or he dies before January 10:

Vice President Nicolas Maduro would finish out the Chavez term ending next week. Then the head of Venezuela's National Assembly -- currently Diosdado Cabello -- would assume the presidency. New elections would be held within 30 days.

Read more: Venezuela: As Chavez battles cancer, Maduro waits in the wings

If Chavez is sworn in on January 10, but later dies or his illness forces lawmakers to declare him permanently absent from office:

The vice president assumes the presidency. New elections must be held within 30 days.

Read more: Venezuelan vice president visits ailing Chavez in Cuba

If Chavez is unable to be sworn in before lawmakers on January 10:

Instead of taking the oath of office before the National Assembly, the constitution says Chavez can be sworn in before the country's Supreme Court.

The wording of the constitution has opened a debate: Does an inauguration before the Supreme Court have to happen on January 10? And does it have to occur in Venezuela? Who runs the country in the meantime?

The constitution isn't clear about whether a swearing-in ceremony before the Supreme Court must take place on January 10, said Jesus Maria Casal, a professor of constitutional law at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "It leaves a margin of interpretation," he said.

Cabello, the national assembly president, is one of several top officials from Chavez's party who argue that the inauguration can be postponed. And Felix Roque, a constitutional lawyer, told state-run VTV this week that Chavez could be sworn in before the Supreme Court justices inside the Venezuelan Embassy in Cuba if necessary.

Other experts argue that the January 10 date is non-negotiable.

Constitutional lawyer Jose Vicente Haro told CNN en Espanol that the inauguration must occur on that day and cannot occur inside the embassy in Cuba because "it is not Venezuelan territory."

The January 10 date "really matters," said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College.

"The moment that you enter into the idea that people can just easily change the inauguration date, you are essentially governing outside of the constitution," he said. "You are essentially abandoning the democracy."

Ultimately, Venezuela's Supreme Court could be asked to decide, said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

If Chavez has not returned to Venezuela and is unable to be sworn in on January 10, the National Assembly may be forced to act, McCoy and Casal said. The lawmakers may have no choice but to either declare Chavez permanently absent, which would result in the national assembly president taking over, or temporarily absent.

Read more: Chavez makes appearance after Cuban treatment

If lawmakers declare Chavez temporarily absent from office:

Another official will assume the presidency for up to 90 days. Lawmakers can renew that for another 90 days.

That means if lawmakers choose to declare Chavez temporarily absent, it can buy them time -- up to 180 days -- before they must decide whether Chavez is incapacitated.

But this scenario also poses questions for debate: Who would assume the presidency during Chavez's temporary absence? Is there a chance Chavez will recover?

The constitution says the vice president should take over if a temporary absence is declared. But if Chavez hasn't been sworn in, does he have a legitimate vice president?

Some Chavez supporters argue that because he was reelected, Chavez's administration automatically continues into the new term. But Venezuela's opposition argues that the current government ends with the term on January 10, and therefore, the head of the National Assembly should assume the presidency.

Read more: Obama finds support among Chavez faithful in Caracas

A larger question lawmakers will have to consider, experts say, is whether a temporary absence designation is appropriate.

"Is he physically able to handle a six-year term?" asked Casal, the constitutional law professor.

It's hard to say, said the Carter Center's McCoy.

"We don't know the prognosis," she said. "That's the real issue."

Journalist Osmary Hernandez contributed to this report from Caracas.

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