Perhaps the least disturbing aspect of today’s abandoned presidential inauguration ceremony in Caracas is that the incumbent, Hugo Chavez, didn’t turn up.

Ever since Chavez returned to Cuba last month seeking further treatment for the cancer consuming him, it’s been clear that January 10 would go down in Venezuela’s history as a no-show on the part of the comandante. Nothing has been heard from Chavez during that time. Meanwhile, his various subordinates, among them Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his appointed successor, along with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, have issued irregular and sometimes contradictory bulletins about Chavez’s health. Currently, Venezuelans are being told that Chavez is suffering from a lung infection, but there is no reason to trust these statements. Indeed, the two years of sustained government deceit over Chavez’s health situation–last July, Chavez himself announced that he was completely cured–provides enough cause to speculate over whether he is, in fact, still alive.

Has Venezuela entered a new era of Chavismo without Chavez? Paradoxically, the increasingly desperate antics of regime loyalists, who continue to dangle the prospect of Chavez returning to Caracas, suggest that we have. Instead of cheering an inauguration, Chavez supporters are being urged to turn out for a rally today outside the Miraflores Palace. Chavez’s foreign allies, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, have rolled into town for the occasion. All the more reason, then, for Nicolas Maduro to state: “A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading.”

But the lie that Chavez remains in command cannot be sustained by revolutionary bluster alone. Yesterday, the constitutional chamber of the TSJ, Venezuela’s Supreme Court, defied the country’s constitution when it ruled that the inauguration could be rescheduled, in the words of its leading judge, Luisa Estella Morales, at a “time and place to be determined.” The ruling provides the regime with some breathing space as it figures out what to do next, for its thrust determines, much to the chagrin of Venezuela’s opposition, that the clauses in the constitution that deal with the temporary or permanent absence of the president do not apply. As the dissident Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal, acerbically remarked: “Chavez is out on a medical trip, he just has a job leave as any Venezuelan worker would, which will last as long as he needs it to last. There is no need to replace Chavez, he is president of Venezuela even if he is on life support.”

Still, there were never any grounds to expect that the TSJ would act differently. Indeed, it can accurately be said that the foundation for yesterday’s decision was laid down nine years ago. In 2004, facing a recall referendum brought about by the opposition, Chavez railroaded through a new law that expanded the number of TSJ justices from 20 to 32. Using his majority in the National Assembly, Chavez was then able to pack the court with his supporters, including Luisa Morales. Since then, the court has faithfully served Chavez’s every whim; among its most notorious, and likely illegal, decisions was the suspension, in 2008, of the opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez from running for public office, on the basis of corruption allegations for which he was never charged, prosecuted or convicted.

Such behavior is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Chavismo, a bizarre concoction of Marxism, nationalism and populism which contemptuously rejects liberal democratic staples like the separation of powers in favor of the enduring faith of an adoring people in their leader. Cabello, the National Assembly president, summarized this system perfectly yesterday: “All of us here are Chavez, the people in the street are Chavez, the lady who cooks is Chavez, the comrade who works as a watchman is Chavez, the soldier is Chavez, the woman is Chavez, the farmer is Chavez, the worker is Chavez; we’re all Chavez.”

Even so, had the TSJ followed the letter of the constitution by ruling that Chavez’s absence necessitates elections 30 days from now, it would have been foolhardy to predict an opposition victory. For one thing, 30 days is hardly enough time to organize an election campaign, especially when the majority of media outlets are controlled by the regime. (During last October’s election, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, embarked on a grueling road trip around the country to meet the voters in person in part because he was denied meaningful air time). For another, while Maduro would most likely be the government’s technical candidate, the real candidate would be Chavez.

For today’s rally in Caracas affords a glimpse of the Chavistas’ future electoral strategy. Dead or alive, Chavez is the leader of all Venezuelans. If “21st century socialism” is to be preserved and deepened, Venezuelans should have no qualms about voting for a phantom.

The opposition, an often fractious coalition of more than 50 parties, thus faces a difficult set of decisions. Capriles himself has acted cautiously, stating his wish for Chavez’s recovery while hammering the country’s institutions for advancing the agenda of the regime. So far, however, there has been no explicit statement that these same institutions, from the National Electoral Council (dubbed by leading opposition figure Diego Arria as the “Ministry of Elections for Mr. Chavez”) through to the TSJ, are beyond redemption for as long as they remain under the boot of Chavez and his deputies.

In such a scenario, one would expect the world’s democracies to loudly proclaim that there is no longer a legitimate basis for the Chavez regime. The Organization of American States, which has tussled with Chavez in the past, may do so. The signals from the State Department, however, are not encouraging. Yesterday’s events were a golden opportunity for the U.S. administration to remind Venezuelans that the future of their country is being decided not in Caracas, but in Havana, where the Cuban leader Raul Castro is acting as Chavez’s guardian. Instead, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued the following anemic statement on the TSJ’s decision: “This is a decision that has to be made by Venezuelans, for Venezuelans, that it has to involve and take into account the views of a broad cross-section of stakeholders.”

In other words, the U.S. has no opinion on what is effectively a coup d’état spearheaded by the TSJ. One more reason, then, for the Chavistas to believe that their eternal leader is the only stakeholder who matters.

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