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Opposition Tries to Provoke Instability in Venezuela

“Opposition in Venezuela launches offensive on President Hugo Chavez, after he approved a law while abroad having surgery in Cuba.”

Opposition lawmakers were angered Wednesday that President Hugo Chavez enacted a law from Cuba, arguing that his absence was unconstitutional and that he could not govern from abroad. The 56-year-old Venezuelan leader arrived in Cuba on June 8th on the final leg of a trip authorized by the National Assembly that also included Brazil and Ecuador. He was rushed into emergency surgery last Friday after suffering sharp pain that was diagnosed as a pelvic abscess which required immediate surgery.  

Chavez is reportedly recovering well, though the government has given no official date for his return to Caracas. 

Opposition legislators, who control a minority 40 percent of Venezuela’s single-chamber legislature, the National Assembly, argued that his prolonged absence meant that Vice President Elias Jaua should replace him, despite the fact that Chavez is still actively running the government, even from his sickbed.

They traded insults with the majority pro-Chavez lawmakers, who insisted -- as government loyalist Iris Varela put it -- that Chavez does not stop being President “even if he’s on the Moon, or in Beijing”. Another legislator, constitutional scholar Carlos Escarra, said it was “absurd” to claim that the President could not govern simply because he was abroad.  

According to Venezuela’s constitution, the National Assembly must authorize any presidential trip abroad lasting more than five days, and any “temporary absences” of up to 90 days are filled by the vice president. Escarra said the government is complying with the constitution because the legislature authorized his trip abroad.

Opposition lawmakers, however, demanded that a “temporary absence” be declared and that the vice president replace Chavez. The President “cannot govern from abroad”, said lawmaker Omar Barboza, who was especially angered over the measure that Chavez signed into law from Havana. It is “absolutely irregular to enact laws from abroad”, said Enrique Sanchez Falcon, a professor of constitutional law at the Central University of Venezuela. “The vice president should temporarily take over”, he declared to the press.  

“Venezuela has been humiliated because either it is governed by Chavez from Cuba or by (Cuban leader) Fidel (Castro)”, charged opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, who is obsessed with Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba and constantly claims her country is being taken over by “Castro-Communism”. Machado, founder of the NGO Sumate, a group heavily funded by US government agencies, was elected to her current position last September, after running a campaign supported by the US International Republican Institute (IRI). The wealthy legislator, who also supported the April 2002 coup d’etat against President Chavez and was received by ex President George W.  Bush in the White House in 2005, has not been shy about her desire to run for president in 2012.

On Wednesday, the National Assembly authorized President Chavez to stay in Cuba “until he is in condition to return”. Despite constant contact with his cabinet members, and frequent calls to public television to inform the public of his recovery and his attention to daily matters, opposition forces are attempting to provoke a climate of instability in the country claiming there is a “power vacuum” and a state of non-governance due to the President’s absence. One opposition legislator, Julio Borges, went so far as to say the President is prohibited from governing outside of the capital, Caracas, which is the seat of state power. Such a ridiculous assertion would imply that a Venezuelan president ceased his powers once stepping outside the boundaries of the capital district, excluding him from governing in the rest of the country.

Generally, an elected head of state governs lawfully until his or her stated term ends. In the US, the President frequently makes executive decisions while traveling abroad or away from the White House. President Obama even authorized the military attacks against Libya while on a visit to Brazil in March and just last month signed the extension of the controversial Patriot Act from France using an even more polemic method called the “auto-pen”. The “auto-pen” is an automated signature issued without the presence of the President, which some say is unconstitutional.

At least in the case of President Chavez, the Venezuelan head of state himself reviewed and signed - with his own hand and pen - a recent bill into law, no matter where he was.

Published on Jun 17th 2011 at 9.44am