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Venezuela stages inauguration rally without Chávez

CARACAS – With cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez hospitalized in Cuba, tens of thousands of flag-waving Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas on Thursday to inaugurate his new term without him.

Bands played patriotic anthems from street-side stages as citizens clad in the red of Chávez’s leftist movement poured out of buses to make their way on foot toward the Miraflores presidential palace.

There, they staged a symbolic swearing-in of the people, in place of Chávez, who is too sick to re-take the oath of office himself.

Shouts of “Chávez, Chávez!” and the anti-opposition “They will not return” could be heard as Chavista militants stoked the crowds with fiery speeches.

“I love the president,” said Pedro Brito, a 60-year-old law professor, in a red T-shirt with the slogan “I am Chávez.” Gladys Guerrero, 35, said she traveled by bus from the eastern state of Monagas “to repay love with love.”

Vice President Nicolás Maduro hosted a meeting of leftist Latin American presidents and other foreign representatives who have come to show support for the Chávez government in a period of deep uncertainty about the future.

Uruguay’s President José Mujica was the first foreign leader to arrive for Thursday’s show of support. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, and foreign ministers Hector Timerman of Argentina and Ricardo Patino of Ecuador were in attendance.

As pro-Chávez crowds built outside the presidential palace, the opposition called for counter-demonstrations on Jan. 23, the day Venezuela’s modern democratic era began in 1958 with the ouster of its last military dictatorship.

“We want to especially address the people of Venezuela, and summon the entire country to give a massive demonstration of force in the streets,” said Miriam Montilla, a lawmaker speaking on behalf of the parliamentary opposition.

The Supreme Court cleared the ailing Chávez to indefinitely postpone his swearing-in and said his existing administration could remain in office until he is well enough to take the oath.

Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales, who read out the decision upholding the inauguration delay, also ruled out convening a medical board to assess the health of the president.

It was the last legal hurdle to a government plan for resolving the vacuum created by Chávez’s illness that met fierce resistance from the opposition, which had argued it was unconstitutional.

Leopoldo López, an opposition leader, said Chávez’s failure to turn up to his own ceremony had created “an indefinite situation in which we can be without a president, and without clear signs that the president is governing.”

Henrique Capriles, who ran unsuccessfully against Chávez in the October presidential elections, accepted the Supreme Court ruling as “binding” but said it did not end the uncertainties facing the oil-rich country.

But even without an official ceremony Venezuela’s government turned the day into a celebration of Chávez, who won re-election in October by an 11-point margin, despite concerns about his failing health.

The government stopped a broadcaster, Globovision, from airing videos about the controversy over Chávez’s non-inauguration, saying they risked inciting political “intolerance.” Globovision, known for being critical of the government, denounced the ban as an act of censorship.

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