Venezuelan VP Delivers State-of-the-Nation Address

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro took the place of the country’s ailing president Tuesday, delivering a short state-of-the-nation address amid legal debate about his legitimacy.

Maduro submitted the report in writing from 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 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, as he did during past treatments. Government officials have said Chavez is being treated for “respiratory deficiency.”

Officials have indefinitely postponed Chavez’s inauguration.

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 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-nation 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, 54, said she was loyal to the new government, even without Chavez present.

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