Vice President Nicolas Maduro sent the strongest signal yet that the government may seek to postpone Chavez's inauguration as the 58-year-old president fights a severe respiratory infection more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro's position in a televised interview on Friday night generated new friction between the government and opposition over the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur Thursday before the National Assembly. Some opposition leaders have argued that if Chavez doesn't make it back to Caracas by that date, the president of the National Assembly should take over as interim president.
Such brewing disagreements were expected to be aired on Saturday as the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority, prepared to convene to choose its president and other legislative leaders.
Maduro's comments shed more light on potential scenarios. If the government succeeds in delaying the swearing-in and Chavez's condition improves, the president and his allies could have more time to plan an orderly transition and prepare for a new presidential election. If Chavez dies or is declared incapacitated, the constitution says that a new election should be called and held within 30 days.
The National Assembly president chosen on Saturday could end up being the country's interim president under some circumstances. Anyone elected by the Chavez-dominated legislature is expected to remain loyal to the president.
But Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reiterated on Saturday that Chavez is still in office, saying in comments reported by the state news agency that "Chavez has won a thousand battles and has reappeared when no one expected."
Speaking on television, Maduro held up a small blue copy of the constitution and read aloud passages as he argued that opponents were using erroneous interpretations to try to drive Chavez from power.
"They should respect our constitution," the vice president said. "The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems, in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez."
Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a firm deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
"Maduro's comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez's serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance."
Chavez was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that his pelvic cancer had returned. Chavez said before the operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
Maduro reiterated on Friday that the president is fighting a "complex" battle for his health but expressed hope that eventually, "we'll see him and we'll hear him."
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said. "The president right now is the exercising president. He has his government formed."
Maduro read a portion of the constitution detailing procedures for declaring an "absolute absence" of the president, which would trigger a new election within 30 days, and declared that "none of these grounds can be raised by the Venezuelan opposition."
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the Assembly, he may take the oath before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not mention a date.
Others disagree. Ruben Ortiz, a lawyer and opposition supporter, argued that the inauguration date can't be postponed.
If Chavez is not in Caracas to be sworn in on Thursday, Ortiz said in a phone interview, "the president of the National Assembly should take charge." He added that "there is a formal separation between one term and the other."
Shifter said the opposition is on the defensive, with its only tactic being to insist that Jan. 10 is the established date.
"Chavez controls all the key institutions, and it's doubtful that most Venezuelans will get too upset about defying what seems a fairly minor constitutional provision," Shifter said. "Attacking the government because it has no objection to the Supreme Court swearing in Chavez after Jan. 10 is not exactly a winning political strategy for the opposition."
A delay also serves the government's purposes, Shifter said. "The government wants more time, whether to see if Chavez gets better, or to consolidate their ranks and further splinter and demoralize the opposition."
Chavez hasn't spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation. The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency."
That account raised the possibility that he might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question or details of the president's treatment, and independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the statements indicated a potentially dangerous turn in Chavez's condition, but said it's unclear whether he is attached to a ventilator.
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011 for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. He also has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/venezuela/
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap