What the Venezuelan Constitution Does, and Does Not, Say about Chávez’s Innauguration

Source: The Americas Blog

The Venezuelan government announced Tuesday that President Hugo Chávez will miss his swearing in on Thursday, January 10, when his new term is set to begin. The Supreme Court ruled today that his swearing in tomorrow would not be necessary for “continuity” of his administration, and that he could be sworn in before the Court at a later date.

Returning from a meeting with Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, Brazilian Foreign Minister Marco Aurelio Garcia said Tuesday that Brazil regards as constitutional the extension of time needed to swear in Chávez as president for his new term, saying the current debate can be solved through “constitutional means,” as Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper reported. Several heads of state or other high level officials from Latin American governments will be present at events at the presidential palace in Caracas tomorrow.

Despite some confusion and deliberate distortions in the media and among Venezuela observers, the Venezuelan constitution (English PDF version here; Spanish version here) is clear on procedure regarding what is allowed if the president-elect is unable to be sworn in in Caracas.

For example, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL), who has infamously called for Fidel Castro’s assassination in the past, issued a hyperbolic statement accusing Chávez of attempting to subvert the constitution:

The delay of his swearing-in is yet another example of the trampling of the constitution by this despot. The Venezuelan constitution states that the leader of Venezuela needs to take the oath of office on January 10 in front of the National Assembly or the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

But Article 231 states, in part, “If for any supervening reason, the person elected President of the Republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.” No deadline is mentioned, contrary to what Ros-Lehtinen claims. Ros-Lehtinen also stated:

I call on the Department of State and the Organization of American States to ensure that democratic principles and the respect for the Venezuelan constitution are upheld. All responsible nations should ensure that Venezuela follows its own constitution which states that in the ‘absolute absence’ of the President, new elections must be held.

Article 233 defines the conditions under which the president-elect can be declared permanently absent, and new elections called, as “death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.” Since none of these criteria have been met, Chávez could legally be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date, as affirmed by the Supreme Court today.  New elections need not be held, again contrary to the Congresswoman’s claims.

While Ros-Lehtinen represents a far-right position on Latin America policy in the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration for its part seems to be signaling that opposition interpretations of the constitution that call, for example, for new elections if Chávez is not sworn in tomorrow, are valid. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked about the situation in a press briefing yesterday, and responded:

We have over the course of the last week or so talked in general about the succession situation in Venezuela. Let me reiterate our foundational point, which is that this is an issue for Venezuelans to decide, and it – they need to do it in a manner that includes all the voices in the discussion. So it needs to be a broad-based discussion and it needs to be decided in a manner that is free, fair, transparent, is seen as ensuring a level political playing field in Venezuela. [Emphasis added.]

But the issue is not one to be decided “in a manner that includes all the voices,” it’s an issue that needs to be decided in the framework of the constitution. There are key institutions involved – the National Assembly, the Supreme Court — that are empowered under the constitution to make decisions that will determine what happens.  But they are not, and cannot be, “all of the voices.”

During the Obama administration, we have seen some on the U.S. right-wing also offer their own interpretations of the constitution – and of reality – regarding President Obama’s constitutional legitimacy to be president of the United States. This played out most notably when Donald Trump and others challenged President Obama’s U.S. citizenship. Had President Chávez or a spokesperson been asked about that debate, it would of course have been absurd for the Chávez administration to respond that it needed to be resolved “in a manner that includes all of the voices.” In the U.S., and in Venezuela, the constitution and rule of law simply need to be upheld. Opposition voices are not entitled to their own set of facts and laws, no matter how strongly they may feel.