Venezuelan V.P. delivers state-of-the-nation address

Jan 15, 2013, 5:05 PM EST
In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro, right, shakes hand with opposition
(AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro took the place of the country's ailing president Tuesday by delivering a short state-of-the-nation address amid legal debate about his legitimacy.

Maduro submitted the report in writing from ailing President Hugo Chavez, who is receiving treatment in Cuba after undergoing his fourth cancer surgery. Opposition politicians had argued that lawmakers should have postponed the annual speech because Chavez was supposed to deliver it.

Last January, Chavez spoke for nine hours before lawmakers even as he was undergoing cancer treatments.

Venezuelan constitutional expert Geraldo Blyde, a politician who sides with the opposition, said lawmakers should have postponed Tuesday's event. He cited sections of the nation's constitution stating that "only an acting president can personally present the report."

Re-elected in October, Chavez has not made any public comments since his latest cancer surgery Dec. 11.

He has been fighting an unspecified type of pelvic cancer, and his long silence has fed speculation about why he hasn't addressed the country by phone on television, as he did during past treatments in Cuba. Government officials have said Chavez is being treated for "respiratory deficiency."

Officials have indefinitely postponed Chavez's inauguration despite complaints by the opposition that the move was unconstitutional.

Earlier Tuesday, Maduro said Chavez has been making progress in his treatment for a severe respiratory infection and asked questions of his aides during a visit Monday.

Maduro said he and other officials including Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez provided Chavez with an update on "the government in a new stage" and other matters.

"He asked our friend Rafael Ramirez about (certain) aspects" of the government, Maduro said in a televised meeting with state governors.

"Our commander is climbing the hill, he's advancing, and that fills us with great happiness," he said.

Maduro expressed gratitude to Chavez's medical team but didn't give details, saying only that Chavez "is in battle."

During the state-of-the-union speech, Maduro said Chavez designated former vice president Elias Jaua as the country's new foreign minister.

Before the legislative session began, a crowd of government supporters gathered outside the legislative palace in downtown Caracas, waving flags and wearing the Chavista movement's trademark red.

Francisca Harvey, 46, a member of the pro-government group Frente Francisco de Miranda, eagerly awaited Maduro's speech as loudspeakers blared the song "Chavez, heart of the people."

"He's a strong man," Harvey said. "It's important that we have him healthy."

Another woman outside the palace gates, Emiliana Quintero, a 54-year-old beautician, said she was loyal to the new government, even without Chavez present.

"We are going to support Nicolas while the president recovers," Quintero said, referring to the vice president.

Guards opened the gates of the palace, allowing dozens of Chavez backers to enter a courtyard. As opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado entered, the crowd began chanting: "They will not return!"

Maduro made his comments about Chavez's health Tuesday at a gathering of state governors in Caracas after returning from Cuba along with Ramirez, Attorney General Cilia Flores and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.

The governors who attended included Chavez's elder brother, Adan, other allied politicians and top opposition leader Henrique Capriles and two other opposition governors.

Maduro used the occasion to condemn street violence during a recent student protest in the western state of Tachira and accuse anti-Chavez groups of trying to sabotage the country's power grid.