CARACAS, Cuba - With cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez hospitalized in Cuba, thousands of flag-waving Venezuelans in red shirts filled the streets of Caracas Thursday to inaugurate his new term without him.
Bands played anthems from street-side stages as people poured out of buses to make their way on foot toward the Miraflores presidential palace for a symbolic swearing-in of the people in place of Chavez, who is too sick to take the oath of office.
"I love the president," said Pedro Brito, a 60-year-old law professor, in a red T-shirt with slogan "I am Chavez."
"He has done a lot for poor people, the ones who had no place to sleep of food to eat. He has shown us how to love the country."
Vice President Nicolas Maduro hosted a meeting of leftist Latin America presidents and other foreign representatives who have come to show support for the Chavez government in a period of deep uncertainty about the future.
The Supreme Court cleared the ailing Chavez to indefinitely postpone his swearing-in and said his existing administration could remain in office until he is well enough to take the oath.
It was the last legal hurdle to a government plan for resolving the vacuum created by Chavez's illness that met fierce resistance from the opposition, which had argued it was unconstitutional.
Henrique Capriles, who ran unsuccessfully against Chavez in the October presidential elections, accepted the unanimous ruling as "binding" but said it did not end the uncertainties facing the oil-rich country.
"The excuses are over, Mr Maduro. Now it falls to you to assume the responsibility of the office and to govern," Capriles said.
But even without the official ceremony, and despite deep political divisions here, Venezuela's government prepared for a day of celebration of Chavez, who won re-election in October by an 11-point margin, despite his health battles.
In televised speeches, on Twitter and in work places, the government has made blanket appeals for Venezuelans to turn out.
"We're going to have a grand event in homage of President Chavez. We are all going to swear in everyone with this constitution," Maduro said Wednesday.
The military announced it was reinforcing security in the city and at other strategic points to ensure the day was observed peacefully.
And the government stopped a broadcaster, Globovision, from airing videos about the controversy over Chavez's non-inauguration, saying they risked inciting political "intolerance."
Globovision, known for being critical of the government, denounced the ban as an act of censorship.
Chavez, who is recovering from a fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana, will be marking a full month since he has been seen in public, the longest stretch of his 14 years in power.
The government has said that he is recovering from complications from surgery, most recently a severe pulmonary infection that had resulted in a "respiratory insufficiency."
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez's medical condition was unchanged.
Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales, who read out the decision upholding the inauguration delay, also ruled out convening a medical board to assess the health of the president.
Uruguay's President Jose Mujica was the first foreign leader to arrive here for Thursday's show of support.
"We have to offer all possible support for a way out at a moment of tension that is the least disruptive for the future of the Venezuelan people," Mujica told Uruguay's public television.
Maduro highlighted the expressions of support he had received from other leaders who are not attending, like Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, and Foreign Ministers Hector Timerman of Argentina and Ricardo Patino of Ecuador were in attendance.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa said Chavez's absence would be a "blow" for Latin America.
Capriles, who had urged Latin leaders not to attend what was a political event, said he was pleased that most presidents from the region were not coming.
Throughout his illness, first detected in June 2011, Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba for his latest surgery.
The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term. - Rappler.com
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