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In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez has been absent from the public eye for weeks. He went to Cuba a month ago for another round of cancer surgery. Since then there have been few details released about the state of his health. Chavez is supposed to be back home this Thursday to take the oath of office and start his fourth presidential term. But as NPR's Juan Forero reports from Venezuela's capital, it's looking increasingly like Chavez won't show up.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: In the Bolivar Plaza of downtown Caracas, Chavez's passionate supporters arrive carrying photographs of their leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

FORERO: And singing songs urging Chavez on. Music blares from loudspeakers, repeating over and over: Chavez, my commander is here to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

FORERO: But Chavez is most definitely not here. And increasingly, many Venezuelans wonder if he'll ever be back. He flew to Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally, for an operation that took place on December 11. It was surgery that was so delicate that the president named a successor before leaving. What little has been reported about his health since has not been good.

ERNESTO VILLEGAS: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Right after the surgery, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas went on state television to say that Chavez was suffering from internal bleeding. Then at the end of December, things seemed to worsen.

NICOLAS MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, read a statement from Havana, saying there were complications and there were risks. Days later, the word from the government was that Chavez had a severe lung infection.

Never in Chavez's year and a half battle with cancer have officials said what kind of cancer he has, where in his body it's located, or what the prognosis is. Instead, state television plays commercial after commercial, showing Chavez with his followers. As in this one, where he tells a group of young men to work hard for the benefit of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Yet while heart-warming videos of El Comandante air, government officials have offered signals that Chavez will not return by Thursday. The constitution says that the inauguration should take place that day before the Congress. But Vice President Maduro has called that a formality.

MADURO: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: In an interview on state television, Maduro said there's flexibility built into the constitution. And that because the president was reelected in October, he went on, there's continuity from one term to the next. He says that the constitution permits Chavez to also be sworn in by the Supreme Court, and that the date can be pushed back.

CARLOS AYALA: That doesn't make sense at all.

FORERO: Constitutional lawyer Carlos Ayala says the constitution is clear and doesn't support the government's argument.

AYALA: So it's not that we elect a president for an undetermined term, for an uncertain term. We elect presidents for a mandate to take place beginning one day and finishing one day. And that's what constitutional democracy is all about.

FORERO: He says that if Chavez can't show up on Thursday, then the constitution says the head of the congress becomes interim leader. Chavez could later return and be sworn in.

But what's vital, Ayala says, is that the public learn more about Chavez's health. Perhaps through a medical board commissioned to travel to Cuba.

AYALA: None of that is being done. And we have just been told that he's coming, that we have already enough information.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

FORERO: At the Plaza Bolivar in central Caracas though, Chavez's red-shirted supporters say they've heard enough about the president's health. One of them is Milia Duarte, who's 50 and a self-styled Chavista.

MILIA DUARTE: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: There have been reports every day, she says, and they've been clear. I'm pleased and feel like I'm informed. She also says she's going hoping for Chavez to return.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.

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