Venezuelan VP active in Chavez's absence
Venezuela's vice president stepped into the shoes of ailing President Hugo Chavez in a flurry of public events Friday, working to maintain an image of government continuity after more than five weeks of unprecedented silence from the normally garrulous president.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro and other Cabinet ministers have striven to assure a nervous public that Chavez's administration is firmly in charge even as the opposition challenges its legitimacy. Chavez has been out of sight in Cuba since undergoing cancer surgery on Dec. 11.
Among three televised events held nationwide on Friday, Maduro helped opened a school in Chavez's home state of Barinas alongside the president's elder brother, Adan, who is the state's governor.
"We're all Chavez. We have to feel that way," Maduro said during the school visit. "We all love Chavez from our hearts."
The vice president, whom Chavez designated last month as his chosen successor, also visited an agricultural training center in Lara state, where he insisted on the importance of "socialist efficiency." He then spoke to National Guard troops in western Zulia state, blaming materialistic values for exacerbating crime. A day earlier on Thursday, Maduro presided over the inauguration of a housing project in Caracas.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez gave an update on the government's efforts to build new public housing for the poor, saying more than 400,000 homes are currently under construction nationwide.
"All the programs of the revolution continue and will continue," Ramirez told reporters Friday. "The revolutionary government hasn't stopped, not one minute."
Opposition leaders have said the government violated the constitution by indefinitely postponing Chavez's swearing-in past Jan. 10, a stance that has been dismissed in a ruling by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, a president known for speaking and singing on television for hours at a time has not uttered a word or appeared on television since Dec. 10. Even his popular and normally busy Twitter account has gone dark since early November.
Maduro and other government leaders don't enjoy anywhere near the level of public adoration that Chavez does, but the president's followers have still embraced him as his anointed stand-ins.
Critics note that while many Venezuelans remain on edge awaiting news of Chavez's condition, the government faces serious challenges ahead.
The opposition newspaper Tal Cual headlined an editorial by journalist Fernando Rodriguez on Monday saying Venezuela is now a "headless country."
"Who's in charge in this country?" Rodriguez asked. He noted that Venezuela is being battered by 20 percent inflation, shortages of some types of food and that hundreds were murdered last month during the holidays.
Rodriguez wrote that as he sees it, "The country is standing still."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.