CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's Supreme Court chief on Wednesday endorsed putting off President Hugo Chavez's inauguration, siding with the government in a heated dispute with the opposition while the ailing leader struggles with complications a month after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales made the statement after the opposition urged the top court to rule that the government was violating the constitution by delaying the swearing-in for a new term, which had been scheduled for Thursday. Lawmakers voted Tuesday to delay the ceremony, allowing Chavez to take the oath of office at an unspecified later date before the Supreme Court.
Morales also said the Supreme Court hasn't considered appointing a panel of doctors, as opposition politicians have demanded, to evaluate whether Chavez is fit to remain in office after remaining out of public view since before his Dec. 11 operation.
Her announcement seemed to pre-empt any opposition attempt to challenge the postponed inauguration. She announced the decision saying the inauguration can be performed before the Supreme Court, at a time and place to be determined.
"We know it's necessary, and undoubtedly the inauguration is going to be carried out, but at this time we can't anticipate when," Morales told reporters at a news conference.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles condemned the Supreme Court's endorsement of delaying the inauguration. "Institutions should not respond to the interests of a government," he said at a news conference.
The case that prompted the decision was brought not by the opposition but by a private lawyer, Marelys D'Arpino, a columnist for the pro-Chavez newspaper Vea. D'Arpino told The Associated Press that she decided to file the case last month because "it was necessary to straighten out" the matter before the court.
The constitutional debate takes place against a backdrop of complaints that the government isn't giving complete information about the condition of Chavez, who hasn't spoken publicly since his fourth cancer-related surgery in Cuba four weeks ago.
"It's very evident that he isn't governing, and what they want us to believe is that he's governing, and they're lying," opposition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told the television channel Globovision. He insisted that the National Assembly president should take over temporarily as interim leader and that the Supreme Court should appoint a panel of doctors to determine Chavez's condition.
It was unclear how the opposition would respond to Morales' statement.
Venezuela's constitution says the oath of office should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10. But the charter adds that if he is unable to be sworn in by the National Assembly, the president may take the oath before the Supreme Court, without explicitly stating a date.
Opponents maintain that even if the oath is taken before the Supreme Court, it should be on Jan. 10.
The opposition has argued that the only legal way to postpone the ceremony is for congress to approve a "temporary absence" for the president, leaving the head of the National Assembly as interim president for 90 days, a period that could be extended for an additional 90 days.
But Morales said that as of now, "there is not even a temporary absence."
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro broke the news that Chavez would not be able to attend the scheduled inauguration in a letter to National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, which he announced he had received on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Maduro hosted a meeting with top leaders, foreign ministers and other officials from 19 Latin American and Caribbean nations. He said they planned to discuss issues related to Petrocaribe, a pact that has boosted Venezuela's influence in the region. The South American nation created Petrocaribe in 2005 to sell fuel to member countries at preferential terms.
Visiting leaders and foreign ministers are expected to attend an event Thursday to show their support for Chavez.
Chavez said before his operation that if he were unable to continue as president, Maduro should take his place and run in an election to replace him. Speculation that his illness might be entering its final stages grew on Tuesday when the proposal for a postponement came in a letter signed by Maduro, not Chavez.
The government said earlier this week that Chavez was in a "stable situation" receiving treatment due to a severe respiratory infection. The government has said he is coping with "respiratory deficiency," but hasn't said how severe it is.
The stances of the government and the Supreme Court have been criticized by legal scholars such as Vicente Gonzalez de la Vega, a law professor at Central University of Venezuela, who said the Supreme Court has effectively consummated a sort of "coup d'etat."
"How can it say that the president isn't absent and he's in his duties when he can't even sign a letter?" Gonzalez told the AP.
Francisco Madrid, a businessman and opposition supporter, called the Supreme Court's decision "shameful."
"It's proof that all branches of the state respond to the government's interests," Madrid said while walking in downtown Caracas. He also complained that while the government is focused on such issues, there are shortages of foods such as sugar, chicken and flour.
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.
AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/venezuela/