Disputes brewing over Chavez's inauguration less than a week away

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - President Hugo Chavez is due to be sworn in for a new term in less than a week and his closest allies are still not saying what they plan to do if the ailing leader is unable to return from a Cuban hospital to take the oath of office.

Mr Chavez has not been seen or heard from since his Dec 11 cancer surgery, and speculation has grown that his illness could be reaching its final stages. The president's elder brother Adan and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello joined a parade of visitors who saw Mr Chavez in Havana this week, and then returned to Caracas on Thursday along with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro.

"In the past hours, we've been accompanying President Hugo Chavez and taking him the courage and strength of the Venezuelan people," Mr Maduro said on television. Appearing next to Mr Cabello visiting a government-run coffee plant in Caracas, he said they had been with Mr Chavez and the president's brother, his son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores.

Mr Chavez's health crisis has raised contentious questions ahead of the swearing-in set for Jan 10, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed, whether Supreme Court justices might travel to Havana to administer the oath of office, and, most of all, what will happen if Mr Chavez cannot begin his new term.

The main fault lines run between Mr Chavez's backers and opponents.

But while the president's allies so far appear united, analysts have speculated that differences might emerge between factions led by Mr Maduro, the chosen successor, and Mr Cabello, who is thought to wield power within the military and who would be in line to temporarily assume the presidency until a new election can be held.

Standing together on Thursday, the two men said they are more united than ever and dismissed rumours of divisions waiting to erupt, calling such talk lies cooked up by their opponents.

"They're going to spend 2,000 years waiting for that to happen," Mr Cabello said, urging Venezuelans not to "fall for the opposition's rumours." "We aren't going to betray the nation," he added.

The former military officer has been making similar assurances on Twitter and suggesting that the socialist party has its plans for the coming days all thought out.

But the plans of Mr Chavez's allies remain a mystery.

The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken on Jan 10 before the National Assembly, and officials have raised the possibility that Mr Chavez might not be well enough to do that, without saying what will happen if he can't.

The president had said before his fourth cancer-related operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Mr Maduro should finish his current term and be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.

The constitution says that if a president or president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly, who is now Mr Cabello. It says a new presidential vote should be held within 30 days.

Opposition leaders have argued that Mr Chavez, who was re-elected to a six-year term in October, seems no longer fit to continue as president and have demanded that a new election be held within 30 days if he is not in Caracas on inauguration day.

But some of his close confidants dismiss the view that the inauguration date is a hard deadline, saying Mr Chavez could be given more time to recover from his surgery if necessary.

Mr Cabello noted last month that the constitution says if a president is unable to be sworn in by the legislature, he may be sworn in by Supreme Court justices, who were appointed by the mostly pro-Chavez legislature.

"When? It doesn't say. Where? It doesn't say where," Mr Cabello recently told a crowd of government supporters. His indication that the constitution does not specify where a president-elect should be sworn in by the Supreme Court has led to speculation that justices could travel to Cuba for the ceremony.

But opposition leaders chafe at the suggestion that Mr Chavez could take office from a foreign country, saying the president made it clear before he left for the operation that his health was deteriorating by designating Mr Maduro as his successor.