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Comandante Chavez Won't Give Up Power Before Ghost

By James Gibney
January 09, 2013 4:47 PM EST

In 2011, the president of Venezuela's Supreme Court, Luisa Estella Morales, declared that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's "direction, inspiration, and conception of the Republic is what constitutionally inspires ... our activities." So her announcement that Chavez's no-show for his own inauguration doesn't violate the country's constitution should come as less of a shock than some of her earlier pronouncements, like her wacky claim last year  that "space law ... will be one of the main priorities of Venezuela's judicial branch."

Venezuelans might have been better off if their Supreme Court had focused on matters extraterrestrial, because as Human Rights Watch has documented, the court's recent interventions on Earth have mostly entrenched Chavez in power and diminished their rights of redress.

So desperate was the court for a legal rationale for not requiring Chavez to turn over power that it actually cited the dreaded Yanquis -- in this case, the delayed 1853 swearing-in of U.S. Vice President William R. King, who was in Cuba for tuberculosis treatment -- as a precedent.

The court, however, would have a hard time finessing demands for new elections if Chavez dies, as seems very highly probable, during the first four years of his new term. In that case, the constitution requires elections to be held within 30 days. That doesn't preclude the possibility for constitutional hanky-panky, of course. The best insurance against that possibility is for Venezuela's neighbors, beginning with Brazil, to insist the country abide by its constitution. Time is running out, Comandante!

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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