CARACAS -- Nothing shows the extent of Hugo Chávez's grip on power quite as clearly as his absence from his own inauguration yesterday.
Venezuela gathered foreign allies and tens of thousands of exuberant supporters to celebrate a new term for a leader too ill to return home from Cuba for a real swearing-in.
In many ways, it looked like the sort of rally the president has staged dozens of times throughout his 14 years in power: The leader's face beamed from shirts, signs and banners. Nearly everyone in the swelling crowd wore red, the color of his Bolivarian Revolution movement.
But this time, there was no Chávez on the balcony of Miraflores Palace.
It was the first time in Venezuela's history that a president has missed his inauguration, said Elias Pino Iturrieta, a prominent historian. As for the symbolic street rally, Pino said, "perhaps it's the first chapter of what they call Chávismo without Chávez."
Yet, in the crowd outside the presidential palace, many insisted that Chávez was present in their hearts, testifying to his success in forging a tight bond of identity with millions of poor Venezuelans.
"We are all Chávez!" the crowd chanted. Some wore paper cutouts of the yellow, blue and red presidential sash to show they were symbolically swearing themselves in, in Chávez's place. The crowd repeated an oath after Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's designated successor: "I swear by the Bolivarian Constitution that I will defend the presidency of commander Chávez in the street, with reason, with the truth!" "Viva Chávez!"
Chávez is so ill following a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba that he has made no broadcasts in more than a month. What sort of cancer he suffers has not been specified.