CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The president of Venezuela's Supreme Court said Thursday that it could decide whether it's constitutional to postpone the date of ailing President Hugo Chavez's swearing-in as he recovers from cancer surgery in Cuba.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales also said the matter has not yet been brought before the court. Chavez is due to be sworn in for another six-year term on Jan. 10, but complications after his Dec. 11 surgery and his silence after the procedure have thrown into doubt whether he will be capable of taking the oath of office.
"At this time, there is no constitutional question to resolve," Morales said at a news conference. "When the matter is brought up, if it's brought up, then it will be the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice that will decide."
The justice's remarks came after National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello suggested on Tuesday that Chavez's inauguration could be postponed — a statement that has fed uncertainty about the his prospects of recovery.
Cabello defended the idea in a message Thursday on his Twitter account, saying: "I only expressed my opinion, of which I'm absolutely convinced since it's in line with our constitution."
His stance conflicted with that of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, who on Wednesday said he didn't want to speculate about such a scenario and that the Supreme Court could settle any such question if needed.
Venezuela's Constitution says the president should be sworn in on Jan. 10 before the National Assembly.
Maduro said in a televised speech Thursday that Chavez is conscious and progressively recovering. He also said Chavez has been with his family resting while receiving treatment for a respiratory infection.
"He's well. He's conscious," Maduro said during the speech in central Guarico state. "He's fighting a great battle ... for his life, for his health."
Maduro reiterated that the president had undergone a complicated surgery.
In addition to the infection, the 58-year-old Chavez also suffered bleeding during the operation, which the government said was promptly stanched.
It was his fourth cancer-related operation since June 2011.
Maduro said on Wednesday that the government is still hoping Chavez can return for the inauguration, and that if the president weren't able to be sworn in as planned, "he left clear, public instructions about any scenario."
Chavez said before leaving for Havana that his vice president should take his place if necessary and should be elected president if a new election is called.
The Supreme Court president's comments seemed to mirror those of Maduro. She said that for now, Chavez is out of the country after being granted permission to travel by lawmakers.
Morales noted that Chavez is a re-elected president rather than a new president, and said "continuity" is highly important. The constitution doesn't mention re-elected presidents, and only specifies with a president-elect should take office.
Former Supreme Court President Cecilia Sosa agreed with Morales' stance and also said that the constitution is quite clear that on Jan. 10 "one term ends and another begins."
"The one that ends can't be extended," Sosa told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Constitutional law professor Henrique Sanchez Falcon agreed, saying that extending the term "is absolutely impossible."
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said Thursday she and other officials plan to attend Chavez's inauguration on the scheduled date. "We're going to see how the president's health evolves, and whether it's done on Jan. 10 or it's postponed," Holguin said in Bogota.
Medical experts who aren't involved in the president's treatment say his recovery is likely to take a month or more if all goes well because he had undergone previous surgeries, radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
State television on Wednesday night showed a documentary about Chavez's life, including his days selling sweets on the street as a boy in the rural town where he lived with his grandmother.
Maduro praised Chavez in his Thursday speech to supporters, calling the president a unique leader and echoing some of Chavez's battle cries.
"The unpatriotic oligarchy will never return to govern this country," Maduro said. "We're all Chavez! Chavez is a nation that's on its feet! And it will never, never be defeated!"
The crowd responded, chanting, "Chavez, friend, the people are with you."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Ian James in Caracas, and Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.