Church leaders warn Venezuela's stability at risk
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela are warning that the country's stability is at risk due to growing tensions surrounding President Hugo Chavez's long absence after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Catholic leaders in the Venezuelan Bishops Conference said on Monday that conflicting stances by the government and opposition ahead of Chavez's scheduled swearing-in for a new term on Thursday make for a potentially dangerous and violent situation.
"The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk," said Bishop Diego Padron, the conference's president, reading a statement from the organization.
Catholic leaders also criticized the government for failing to provide more details about Chavez's condition nearly a month after his operation. "The government hasn't told the nation all of the truth," Padron said.
Government officials have called Chavez's condition delicate and say he's been fighting a severe respiratory infection. Chavez hasn't spoken publicly since before the Dec. 11 surgery. Since then, government officials have provided regular updates but no details of his complications.
Chavez describes himself as Christian but has clashed repeatedly with Catholic leaders, who have accused the president in recent years of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10, this Thursday. It says the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he's unable to be sworn in before the assembly.
Some opposition leaders have argued that Chavez's allies would violate the constitution if they try to put off the inauguration.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro has called the swearing-in a "formality" and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution.
Catholic leaders agreed with the opposition's arguments on Monday, saying the constitution is clear that one presidential term ends and another begins on Jan. 10.
"Altering the constitution to achieve a political goal is morally unacceptable," the Catholic leaders said, adding that they would oppose any attempts to manipulate the constitution to the "detriment of democracy."
It remains unclear what the opposition intends to do if Chavez doesn't show up on inauguration day.
But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello warned the opposition not to try to stir up trouble. Speaking to reporters alongside Maduro on Monday, he called for the government's supporters to demonstrate in the streets of Caracas on Thursday.
Cabello also said at a news conference that some foreign leaders would soon visit Venezuela to express solidarity with Chavez. He didn't give details or identify the presidents.
But Cabello also avoided saying whether the inauguration was definitely being put off. Asked if the government now rules out Chavez being able to make it back on time for the inauguration, Cabello said: "We don't rule out absolutely anything at all."
Maduro reiterated the government's view that Chavez may be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. Referring to the Catholic Church's leaders, Maduro said he hopes they "maintain a conduct of respect."
Constitutional expert Roman Duque Corredor, a former Supreme Court magistrate, said the constitution is clear that Chavez's inauguration cannot legally be postponed.
Duque told The Associated Press he believes the Supreme Court should now form a board of doctors to determine the president's condition.
Some opposition politicians also say it's time for such a medical team to travel to Havana to determine whether Chavez is fit to remain in office or not.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said on Monday that Chavez's allies have turned to a convoluted interpretation of the constitution for their political aims while they hold sway in the president's absence.
"We don't know who's governing Venezuela now," Borges told the Venezuelan radio station Union Radio.