CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Nothing shows the extent of Hugo Chavez's grip on power quite as clearly as his absence from his own inauguration Thursday.
Venezuela gathered foreign allies and tens of thousands of exuberant supporters to celebrate a new term for a leader too ill to return home 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. Adoring followers danced and chanted in the streets to music blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. Nearly everyone wore red, the color of his Bolivarian Revolution movement, as the swelling crowd spilled from the main avenue onto side streets.
But this time, there was no Chavez 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 Chavismo without Chavez."
Yet in the crowd outside the presidential palace, many insisted that Chavez was still present in their hearts, testifying to his success in forging a tight bond of identity with millions of poor Venezuelans.
The crowd chanted: "We are all Chavez!" Some wore paper cutouts of the yellow, blue and red presidential sash to show they were symbolically swearing in themselves in, in Chavez's place.
Those in the crowd raised their hands and repeated an oath after Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's designated successor: "I swear by the Bolivarian Constitution that I will defend the presidency of commander Chavez in the street, with reason, with the truth!"
"Viva Chavez!" Maduro said. He called for a round of applause for the president's Cabinet ministers, saying they were starting a new term, and he said of Chavez, "he's in a battle."
The Venezuelan leader, normally at the center of national attention, is so ill following a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba that he has made no broadcast statement in more than a month, and has not appeared in a single photo. Officials have not specified what sort of cancer he suffers or which hospital is treating him.
Yet the opposition, limping off of two recent electoral defeats, seems powerless to effectively challenge him, and critics see their impotence in the battle over his new inauguration as an example of how the president and his allies have, both previously and now, bent the country's democratic system to suit their purposes.
Despite opposition claims that the constitution demands a Jan. 10 inauguration, the pro-Chavez congress approved delaying the inauguration and the Supreme Court on Wednesday endorsed the postponement, saying the president could be sworn in before the court at a later date.
Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado called that a "well-aimed coup against the Venezuelan Constitution" and echoed other critics' suspicions that foreign allies are influencing events in Venezuela: "It's being directed from Cuba, and by Cubans," she told The Associated Press.
Opposition leaders called for protests on Jan. 23, the anniversary of the fall of the country's last dictatorship in 1958.