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Hugo Chavez Misses Inauguration Day, But Supporters Fill The Streets

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Three Latin American presidents turned up, as did foreign diplomats. And thousands of President Hugo Chavez's supporters flooded the streets Thursday outside the presidential palace in Venezuela's capital, Caracas.

But Chavez himself didn't show — he remained in Cuba, incapacitated after his latest round of cancer surgery.

Still, the carefully choreographed show did go on, and Chavez's aides said he remains in charge.

There was guitar-laden music. And the salsa that's much beloved in Venezuela. On a huge stage were Venezuela's top leaders, along with the presidents of Uruguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

There were also countless people like Florencio Rondon, 67, who came carrying a sign like so many others: "I Am Chavez," it read.

"He's not here, but we're all here as if he were with us," Rondon said.
"He is the greatest thing we have. He may not be here, but he lives in our hearts."

The level of support on the streets reflected the strong backing Chavez's government still maintains after 14 years and three terms in office.

On inauguration day, as on other big days in Venezuela's political calendar, Chavez usually gives a booming, revolutionary speech from the balcony of the Miraflores palace.

Hospitalized In Havana

But Chavez has been in Havana for the past month. He underwent complex surgery for cancer, and he hasn't been seen or heard from since. He's been receiving treatments since June 2011, for what has been described only as cancer in the pelvic region.

The government says he remains the president even though the Constitution says he had to be sworn in Thursday for a fourth term.

The president's absence has generated what opposition leaders have been calling an institutional crisis. Earlier this week, opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said one government ends and another is supposed to begin on this date. And if Chavez can't be here, Borges says "an official absence" must be declared and an interim leader must take over.

The controversy dominated Venezuela this week.

In a speech in the National Assembly, Borges asked, "Who's governing in Venezuela?"

Chavez supporters in the assembly quickly drowned out Borges by yelling the president's name. Lawmakers then voted to give Chavez the time he needs to get better and return to take the oath of office.

And on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the delay was fine. The president of the court, Luisa Morales, says there's no need now for a swearing in because Chavez is a re-elected president, winning the ballot last October with 54 percent of the vote.

The court argued that there's continuity from one government to the next and that the swearing in is a formality.

Back in front of the presidential palace, Edinson Romero, 22, said he came to show his support for Chavez and his self-styled revolution.

"He's a sitting president, elected by the people," said Romero, adding,
"It's the same government, so the swearing in can wait."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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