CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) — With cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez hospitalised in Cuba, thousands of flag-waving Venezuelans in red shirts filled the streets of Caracas yesterday to inaugurate his new term without him.
Bands played patriotic anthems from streetside stages as people poured out of buses to make their way on foot toward the Miraflores presidential palace for a symbolic swearing-in of the people in place of Chavez, who is too sick to take the oath of office.
Shouts of "Chavez, Chavez!" and the anti-opposition slogan "They will not return" could be heard, as Chavista militants stoked the crowd. On one stage, an evangelical religious service was underway.
"I love the president," said Pedro Brito, a 60-year-old law professor, in a red T-shirt with the slogan "I am Chavez".
"He has done a lot for poor people, the ones who had no place to sleep of food to eat. He has shown us how to love the country."
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro hosted a meeting of leftist Latin America presidents and other foreign representatives who have come to show support for the Chavez government in a period of deep uncertainty about the future.
The Supreme Court cleared the ailing Chavez to indefinitely postpone his swearing-in and said his existing administration could remain in office until he is well enough to take the oath.
It was the last legal hurdle to a government plan for resolving the vacuum created by Chavez's illness that met fierce resistance from the opposition, which had argued it was unconstitutional.
The opposition kept a low profile yesterday but criticised the government for not declaring Chavez temporarily incapacitated.
Leopold Lopez, an opposition leader, called it "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 Chavez in the October presidential elections, accepted the unanimous ruling as "binding" but said it did not end the uncertainties facing the oil-rich country.
"The excuses are over, Mr Maduro. Now it falls to you to assume the responsibility of the office and to govern," Capriles said.
But even without the official ceremony, and despite deep political divisions here, Venezuela's government prepared for a day of celebration of Chavez, who won re-election in October by an 11-point margin, despite his health battles.
In televised speeches, on Twitter and in work places, the government has made blanket appeals for Venezuelans to turn out.
The military announced it was reinforcing security in the city and at other strategic points to ensure the day was observed peacefully.
And the government stopped a broadcaster, Globovision, from airing videos about the controversy over Chavez'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.