NEW: Political tensions in Venezuela spill over into a regional meeting
The armed forces will defend the Supreme Court's decision on the presidency
The court said Chavez remains president and can be sworn in at a later date
The army has "unconditional loyalty" to Chavez, the defense minister says
Venezuela’s armed forces will back ailing President Hugo Chavez’s new term amid uncertainty of what a possible power transition might look like, the country’s defense minister said.
Chavez was unable to be sworn in last week for a new term because he is in Cuba recovering from a fourth cancer surgery. His absence at the inauguration raised constitutional questions about who is in charge of the country, opposition politicians said.
The Supreme Court clarified the issue last week, ruling that Chavez remains president and can be sworn in at a later date.
The army will defend that decision, Defense Minister Diego Molero Bellavia said Wednesday.
“Soldiers will abide by and enforce the Supreme Court decision to allow the head of state to return home when his health improves,” he said.
Molero added that the armed forces have “unconditional loyalty, now more than ever, to commander Hugo Chavez.”
On Sunday, officials said Chavez’s health was progressing positively and that the 58-year-old Venezuelan president was conscious and in contact with his family and political and medical advisers.
“In spite of the delicate state of his health… the general medical evolution has been favorable in recent days,” a government statement said, noting that a lung infection Chavez has been battling was under control.
Neither Chavez nor the government has said what type of cancer he has, sparking growing speculation about his health and political future. Opposition politicians have decried the lack of transparency, while government officials have accused political opponents and right-wing media of trying to destabilize the government by spreading rumors.
Chavez has not made a public appearance or spoken on state television since doctors operated on him more than a month ago. The long absence is not typical of the loquacious leader.
On Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro stood in for Chavez at the annual state of the union speech. Maduro announced that a former vice president, Elias Jaua, will begin serving as foreign minister. Maduro said that Chavez himself made the designation.
Some opposition politicians questioned whether Chavez had actually nominated a new foreign minister, or whether Maduro had effectively taken over the presidency.
“If the president of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to appear and speak to Venezuela and tell the people what’s happening in our government, because in Venezuela what we have is lack of governance,” said Henrique Capriles, who unsuccessfully ran against Chavez in the last elections.
Capriles spoke at his own inauguration, as governor of the state of Miranda, a post he was elected to following his presidential defeat. He accused the Chavez government of trying to divide the public.
“Never again will Venezuelans fight among themselves,” he said. “Never again will we ask the people to get involved in a war. This government wants war; we want peace. This government wants to go backwards; we want progress.”
The rising political tension in Venezuela spilled over into a meeting of the Organization of American States on Wednesday.
Panama’s ambassador, Guillermo Cochez, criticized the regional body for not taking a stand against the situation in Venezuela, which he described as a “sick democracy.”
Venezuelan Ambassador Roy Chaderton quickly fired back, calling Cochez’s comments “poisonous” and “miserable” and accusing him of conspiring with members of the opposition to destabilize Venezuela’s government.
Hours later, Panama’s government disavowed Cochez’s remarks, saying they were improvised and did not represent the country’s position.
“Panama reiterates that it will continue to respect to the internal political processes of states,” Panama’s foreign ministry said in a statement, “and, in the case of Venezuela, we are praying for the quick recovery of President Hugo Chavez.”
CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet and Rafael Romo contributed to this report.