Dispute brews over Hugo Chavez inauguration

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CARACAS -- President Hugo Chavez is due to be sworn in for a new term in less than a week, and his closest allies still aren't saying what they plan to do if the ailing leader is unable to return from a Cuban hospital to take the oath of office.

Chavez hasn't been seen or heard from since his Dec. 11 cancer surgery, and speculation has grown that his illness could be reaching its final stages. His elder brother, Adan, and National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello joined a parade of visitors who saw Chavez in Havana this week, and returned to Caracas yesterday, along with Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"In the past hours, we've been accompanying President Hugo Chavez and taking him the courage and strength of the Venezuelan people," Maduro said on television. He said he and Cabello had seen Chavez, together with his brother, his son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez and Attorney General Cilia Flores.

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Chavez's health crisis has raised contentious questions before the swearing-in set for Thursday, including whether the inauguration could legally be postponed, whether Supreme Court justices might travel to Havana to administer the oath of office, and, most of all, what will happen if Chavez can't begin his new term.

While his allies so far appear united, analysts speculate that differences might emerge between factions led by Maduro, Chavez's chosen successor, and Cabello, who is thought to wield power within the military. -- AP

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