CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's vice president said Friday that President Hugo Chavez could be sworn in by the Supreme Court later on if he's not able to take the oath of office next week before lawmakers because of his struggle with cancer.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro made the comment in a televised interview on Friday night, dismissing the argument by some opposition leaders that new elections must be called if Chavez doesn't take office as scheduled on Thursday. His stance appeared likely to generate friction between the government and opposition over the legality of putting off the swearing-in, which the constitution says should occur on Thursday before the National Assembly.
Maduro says Chavez, as a re-elected president, remains in office beyond the inauguration date stipulated in the constitution, and could be sworn in if necessary before the Supreme Court at a date to be determined.
"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved before the Supreme Court of Justice, at the time (the court) deems in coordination with the head of state, Commander Hugo Chavez," Maduro said.
As for the opposition, Maduro said, "they should respect our constitution." The vice president held up a small copy of the constitution and read aloud passages relating to such procedures.
Opposition leaders have demanded that the government provide more specific information about Chavez's condition, and say that if the president doesn't return to Venezuela by inauguration day, the president of the National Assembly should take over the presidency on an interim basis. But Maduro echoed other Chavez allies in suggesting the inauguration date is not a hard deadline, and that the president should be given more time to recover from his cancer surgery if needed.
"Maduro's comments are not surprising. The government holds all the cards in the current situation, particularly given the compassion for Chavez's serious illness. It has interpreted the constitution loosely, to its own political advantage," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "In this way Maduro is able to buy some time, assert his authority, and rally support within Chavismo. He puts the opposition on notice and throws it off balance."
As for Chavez, Maduro reiterated that the president is fighting a "complex" health battle but expressed hope that eventually "we'll see him and we'll hear him."
"He has a right to rest and tranquility, and to recuperate," Maduro said on state television, speaking with Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken Jan. 10 before the National Assembly. It also says that if the president is unable to be sworn in before the National Assembly, he may take the oath office before the Supreme Court, and some legal experts have noted that the sentence mentioning the court does not mention a date.
The constitution says that if a president-elect dies or is declared unable to continue in office, presidential powers should be held temporarily by the president of the National Assembly and a new election should be held within 30 days.
Venezuelan lawmakers will meet Saturday in a session that could shed light on what steps may be taken if Chavez is too sick to be sworn in for a new term next week.
Legislators will choose a president, two vice presidents and other leaders of the National Assembly, which is controlled by a pro-Chavez majority. Whoever is elected National Assembly president could eventually end up being the interim president of Venezuela under some circumstances.
Brewing disagreements over how to handle a possible transition of power could be aired at the session, coming just five days before the scheduled inauguration day specified in the constitution.
The government revealed this week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency" more than three weeks after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba. The announcement suggests a deepening crisis for the 58-year-old president and has fed speculation that he likely is not well enough to travel to Caracas for the inauguration.
But Maduro criticized rumors surrounding Chavez's condition, saying: "He has a right to his privacy, and to recover."
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello called on Chavez backers to show up for the legislative session and demonstrate their support.
"This National Assembly is revolutionary and socialist. It will remain beside the people and our commander," Cabello said in one of several messages on his Twitter account. "If the opposition thinks it will find a space in the National Assembly to conspire against the people, it's mistaken once again. It will be defeated."
Chavez hasn't spoken publicly or been seen since his Dec. 11 operation in Cuba. In a Thursday night update, the government for the first time described the president's respiratory infection as "severe," the strongest confirmation yet that Chavez is having serious trouble breathing after days of rumors about his condition worsening.
The government's characterization raised the possibility that Chavez might be breathing with the assistance of a machine. But the government did not address that question and didn't give details of the president's treatment.
Independent medical experts consulted by The Associated Press said the government's account indicated a potentially dangerous turn in Chavez's condition, but said it's unclear whether he is attached to a ventilator.
Dr. Gustavo Medrano, a lung specialist at the Centro Medico hospital in Caracas, said he has seen similar cases in cancer patients who have undergone surgery, and "in general it's very bad, above all after a surgery like the one they performed on him."
"I don't know the magnitude of the infection he has, how much of his lungs have been compromised, how much other organs are being affected. That's not clear," Medrano said.
"What's most likely is that he's on mechanical ventilation," Medrano added. However, he said, while respiratory deficiency means there is an abnormally low concentration of oxygen in the blood, depending on the severity it can be treated in various ways.
Dr. Michael Pishvaian, an oncologist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, agreed that such respiratory infections can run the gamut from "a mild infection requiring antibiotics and supplemental oxygen to life-threatening respiratory complications."
"It could be a very ominous sign," Pishvaian said. He said it's possible Chavez could be on "life support," but added it's impossible to be sure without more details.
Opposition leaders have blamed vague information coming from the government for the persistent rumors about Chavez's condition, and demanded a full medical report.
The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional criticized what it called an "information vacuum" in an editorial on Friday, saying Venezuelans are in the dark because "no one speaks clearly from the government." The newspaper called the situation reminiscent of secrecy that surrounded the deaths of Josef Stalin in the former Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China.
State television repeatedly played video of a song in which rappers encourage Venezuelans to pray, saying of Chavez: "You will live and triumph." A recording of a speech by Chavez appears during the song, saying: "I will be with you always!"
Chavez has undergone four cancer-related surgeries since June 2011 for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. He also has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
He was re-elected in October to another six-year term, and two months later announced that the cancer had returned. Chavez said before the operation that if his illness prevented him from remaining president, Maduro should be his party's candidate to replace him in a new election.
This week, Cabello and the president's elder brother Adan joined a parade of visitors who saw Chavez in Havana, and then returned to Caracas on Thursday along with Maduro.
Brazil's state-run Agencia Brasil news agency reported Friday that President Dilma Rousseff's top international adviser, Marco Aurelio Garcia, made a one-day visit to Cuba and spoke with Venezuelan and Cuban officials about Chavez's health. It was unclear if Garcia actually saw Chavez, or what day he visited Cuba.
On the streets of Caracas, some of Chavez's supporters say they're still holding out hope he can recover.
"He's the only leader of the revolution," said Miriam Bolivar, who belongs to a grassroots pro-Chavez group. "We can't imagine life without him. He's our life. This is one more battle and we have faith that he'll come out it unscathed once again."
AP Interactive: http://hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/venezuela/
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap