President Hugo Chávez’s return to Venezuela has not resolved the political uncertainty that the country has faced since he was unable to take the oath of office on Jan. 10. The day before, the Supreme Court ruled that he could be sworn in when he overcame his health problems and gave no deadline, effectively allowing an unelected vice president to remain in charge indefinitely. Opposition politicians and analysts, questioning the legitimacy of the current arrangement, have called for the court to declare Chávez in a “temporary absence” from the presidency -- which the constitution allows for a maximum of six months before elections have to be called.
When Chávez returned to Venezuela on Feb. 18 and was whisked to the military hospital in Caracas, many analysts thought he would quickly be sworn in by a delegation of Supreme Court justices. But he has not been seen or heard from since he arrived, and President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello suggested that there would be no hurry for Chávez to take the oath of office.
It is unclear how long this situation can last, or who or what could push it to a resolution. While liberal institutions have functioned throughout the Chávez period and frequently restricted the president’s plans -- for example when he lost the 2007 referendum on constitutional reform -- they have also been progressively transformed by a government trying to create a socialist state. As Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) now controls all branches of the government, perhaps the only potential variable in the current situation, other than Chávez’s health, is a Venezuelan population with strong democratic values.