Ailing Hugo Chavez's Inauguration Up In The Air

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez continues to battle for his health. He has been undergoing cancer treatments, and is now being treated for a respiratory illness after complications from a lung infection. Audie Cornish gets the latest on his health status, and what will happen if he cannot make his Jan. 10 swearing in ceremony with Ian James, Associated Press Bureau Chief in Caracas.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. President Hugo Chavez was scheduled to be sworn in for his fourth term as president of Venezuela next week. But his inauguration - and the country's political future - is now up in the air. Yesterday, the Venezuelan government confirmed that the 58-year-old president is suffering from a severe respiratory infection, following his latest round of cancer surgery in Cuba. Critics argue his condition shows that Chavez is no longer fit to serve as president and the opposition is calling for a new presidential vote.

Joining us with more on the news, and its implications, is Ian James, Associated Press bureau chief in Caracas. And Ian, what more can you tell us about the president's health?

IAN JAMES: The latest we've heard from the government is that he has a severe respiratory infection. And when the government added the word "severe" yesterday, it was the first time it had done that, and also said that he has a respiratory deficiency. And what, precisely, that means, it's not entirely clear. But some medical experts say they think it sounds like pneumonia, but that it could be of various levels of severity.

CORNISH: And at this point, isn't it - entirely clear what cancer he's specifically suffering from?

JAMES: No. That has also not been revealed. He was diagnosed in June 2011. And since then, he has declined to say specifically what type of cancer it is, or the precise location of the tumors that have been removed.

CORNISH: Now, what happens if Chavez is not able to be there for the January 10 swearing-in? Are there legal or constitutional concerns?

JAMES: Yes. The opposition has said that they believe that if Chavez is not here in Caracas, to be sworn in on January 10, that at that point, the process should move toward the calling of new elections, which would be held within 30 days. And among politicians and constitutional scholars as well, there's disagreement about that point.

CORNISH: So it's not clear that that actually would happen, or it could happen?

JAMES: Right, it's not clear. And also, some of Chavez's allies have made the argument that they should be able to delay the inauguration, if necessary. And the Supreme Court has also said that - although this question hasn't been brought before the court yet, it could rule on such a question if it were brought before the court.

CORNISH: Now, who are some of the people who might be next in line for the presidency? Has Chavez, essentially, handpicked a successor?

JAMES: President Chavez has made clear that Vice President Nicolas Maduro is his chosen successor to run for office, to replace him. And the opposition, although it has not said, is expected to choose Henrique Capriles, who recently was defeated by Chavez in the October election.

CORNISH: Ian, what is the next step, then? Are people in a wait-and-see position, at this point?

JAMES: Yes, it's really a tense wait-and-see for people on both sides, at this point. And some of what the plans on the government side are, may start to become clear this Saturday, when the national assembly plans to hold a session and choose its new leaders. But we're less than a week away from the swearing-in, and it's still not at all clear what plans Chavez's political allies have in mind.

CORNISH: Ian James is Associated Press bureau chief in Caracas. Ian, thank you for speaking with us.

JAMES: Thank you.

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