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Thousands hold symbolic inauguration for ill Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

By Ian James

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 11:56 a.m. MST

Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez chants slogans at a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Hundreds of supporters gathered outside his presidential palace in an alternative inauguration, showing their support for the ailing leader and wearing T-shirts with the slogan "I am Chavez." The government organized the rally for the cancer-stricken leader on the streets outside Miraflores Palace on what was supposed to be his inauguration day. A swearing-in ceremony has been indefinitely postponed, despite opposition complaints.

Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Nothing shows the extent of Hugo Chavez's grip on power quite as clearly as his absence from his own inauguration on Thursday.

Venezuela gathered foreign allies and tens of thousands of exuberant supporters Thursday to celebrate a new term for a leader too ill to return home for a real swearing in.

In many ways, it looked like the sort of rally the president has staged scores of times throughout his 14 years in power: The leader's face beamed from shirts, signs and banners. Adoring followers danced and chanted in the streets to music blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. Nearly everyone wore red, the color of his Bolivarian Revolution movement, as the swelling crowd spilled from the main avenue onto side streets.

But this time, there was no Chavez on the balcony of Miraflores Palace.

It was the first time in Venezuela's history that a president has missed his inauguration, said Elias Pino Iturrieta, a prominent historian. As for the symbolic street rally, Pino said, "perhaps it's the first chapter of what they call Chavismo without Chavez."

Yet in the crowd outside the presidential palace, many insisted that Chavez was still present in their hearts, testifying to his success in forging a tight bond of identity with millions of poor Venezuelans.

The crowd chanted: "We are all Chavez!" Some wore paper cutouts of the yellow, blue and red presidential sash to show they were symbolically swearing in themselves in, in Chavez's place.

"A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading," said Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's designated successor.

The Venezuelan leader, normally at the center of national attention, is so ill following a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba that he has made no broadcast statement in more than a month, has not appeared in a single photo. Officials have not specified what sort of cancer he suffers or which hospital is treating him.

Yet the opposition, limping off of two recent electoral defeats, seems powerless to effectively challenge him, and critics see their impotence in the battle over his new inauguration as an example of how the president has been able to ignore the constitution at whim.

Despite opposition claims that the constitution demands a Jan. 10 inauguration, the pro-Chavez congress approved delaying the inauguration and the Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed the postponement, saying the president could be sworn in before the court at a later date.

Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado called that a "well-aimed coup against the Venezuelan Constitution" and echoed other critics' suspicions that foreign allies are influencing events in Venezuela: "It's being directed from Cuba, and by Cubans," she told The Associated Press.

Opposition leaders called for protests on Jan. 23, the anniversary of the of the country's last dictatorship in 1958.

But it is unclear how much support the opposition's complaints can generate amid an outpouring of public sympathy for the ailing president, and with Latin American neighbors either supporting the government's stance or reluctant to step into Venezuela's domestic affairs.

The government invited foreign leaders to add political weight to Thursday's event. Presidents Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua arrived, and officials said officials for more than a dozen other nations were on hand.

Maduro hosted a televised meeting with visiting leaders to discuss the Chavez-launched program under which the OPEC nation provides fuel under preferential terms to allies.

Soldiers and police stood guard on street corners while hip-hop artists performed on stages set up along the avenue leading toward the presidential palace.

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