Thousands of Venezuelans fervently swore “absolute loyalty” to Hugo Chavez on Thursday in a giant rally for the cancer-stricken president on what was to have been his inauguration.
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro led the crowd in the oath, which was repeated by roaring supporters of the absent leader, who packed central Caracas in a massive show of support at time of deep uncertainty over the country’s future.
“Comandante, get better, because this people has sworn and is going to show absolute loyalty. So we have sworn. Long live Chavez!” Maduro said.
The collective oath was taken at the end of a speech by Maduro that lavished praise on Chavez and his socialist revolution, and accused the opposition of harbouring desires for a coup.
He urged the police to closely watch what the opposition does, accusing them of “looking to stain this special moment in this life of our peoples.”
Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets streaked the length of this mountain valley as allies from around the region took turns showering praise on Chavez and pledging their undying support.
A sea of red shirts and flags, the colour of Chavez’s socialist movement, filled the avenue in front of the Miraflores presidential palace where participants were to take a symbolic oath for the 58-year-old.
The crowd delivered a booming rendition of the national anthem and roared with approval for the tributes from leftist leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica and ousted Paraguayan leader Fernando Lugo.
“There is a man who is fighting for his life, who is in your hearts,” said Mujica. “But if tomorrow, he is no longer - unity, peace and work.”
It was the day’s most direct reference to the possibility that Chavez, who has been in a Cuban hospital and out of public view for a full month, may die.
Despite the turnout, the inauguration comes amid deep uncertainty here over the country’s future without Chavez, whose charismatic and domineering personality has held a vice-like grip over Venezuelan politics for 14 years.
As pro-Chavez crowds built outside the presidential palace, the opposition called for counter-demonstrations on January 23, the day Venezuela’s modern democratic era began in 1958 with the ouster of its last military dictatorship.
“We want to especially address the people of Venezuela, and summon the entire country to give a massive demonstration of force in the streets,” said Miriam Montilla, a deputy speaking on behalf of the parliamentary opposition.
But it was Chavez supporters who dominated the day, pouring out of buses from the early morning to rally behind the government in a celebration that was by turns festive and fervent.
Bands played patriotic anthems from stages erected along the streets.
Shouts of “Chavez, Chavez!” and the anti-opposition chant “They will not return” could be heard as Chavista militants stoked the crowds with fiery speeches.
Faithful flocked to one stage for an evangelical religious service, while street vendors sold Chavez memorabilia on the sidewalk.
“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 or food to eat. He has shown us how to love the country.”
Gladys Guerrero, 35, said she traveled by bus from the eastern state of Monagas “to repay love with love.”
The Supreme Court upheld a decision to indefinitely postpone Chavez’s swearing-in ceremony 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.
Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, said Chavez’s failure to turn up to his own ceremony had created “an undefined 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 October presidential elections, accepted the Supreme Court ruling as “binding” but said it did not end the uncertainties facing the oil-rich country.
The military announced it was reinforcing security in Caracas 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.
The government has said that Chavez is recovering from complications from surgery, most recently a severe pulmonary infection that had resulted in a “respiratory insufficiency.”
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said late Monday that Chavez’s medical condition was unchanged.
Supreme Court president Luisa Estella Morales, who read out the decision upholding the inauguration delay, also ruled out convening a medical board to assess the health of the president.
Throughout his illness, first detected in June 2011, Chavez has refused to relinquish the powers of the presidency, even when leaving for Cuba for his latest surgery.
The charter says new elections must be held within 30 days if the president-elect or president dies or is permanently incapacitated, either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.