CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro took the place of the country's ailing president Tuesday by delivering a short state-of-the-nation address amid legal debate about his legitimacy.
Maduro submitted a report in writing from the government of ailing President Hugo Chavez, who is receiving treatment in Cuba after undergoing his fourth cancer-related surgery. Opposition politicians argued that the annual speech should have been postponed because Chavez was supposed to deliver it, and some walked out in protest.
Maduro announced during the speech, a day after visiting with Chavez in Cuba, that the president had designated former vice president Elias Jaua as the new foreign minister. Maduro had kept the foreign minister's post after his appointment as vice president in October.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the naming of Jaua as foreign minister should be reviewed because it was unclear under what authority the vice president was acting when such powers belong to the president alone.
Only a portion of the opposition lawmakers walked out of the session. "We have an illegitimate government," said lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, one of about a dozen who left.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez rejected the opposition's allegations that the government was acting illegally by going ahead with the special legislative session.
"There's no constitutional controversy," Ramirez told reporters, calling the politicians who walked out "the most extremist sector of the far right."
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 on television, as he did during past treatments in Cuba. Government officials have said Chavez is being treated for "respiratory deficiency."
Officials have indefinitely postponed Chavez's inauguration despite complaints by the opposition that the move was unconstitutional.
Venezuelan constitutional expert Geraldo Blyde, an opposition politician and lawyer, 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."
Last January, Chavez spoke for nine hours before lawmakers even as he was undergoing cancer treatments.
This year, the president's supporters in a courtyard outside the session chanted: "With Chavez and Maduro, the nation is secure."
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 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 televised 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."
Before the legislative session, a crowd of government supporters gathered outside the legislative palace in Caracas, wearing the Chavista movement's signature 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, a 54-year-old beautician, said she was loyal to the new government, even without Chavez present.
"We are going to support Nicolas while the president recovers," Quintero said, referring to the vice president.
Dozens of Chavez supporters were allowed through the gates into the courtyard of the National Assembly. As the opposition lawmaker Machado entered, the crowd began chanting: "They will not return!"
Opposition lawmaker Carlos Berrizbeitia insisted that Maduro should not have been acting in Chavez's stead.
"Today another move was made against the country's constitution," Berrizbeitia said, adding that Maduro should not "continue acting as president of the republic."
Maduro made his comments about Chavez's health Tuesday at a gathering of state governors in Caracas after returning from Cuba along with Ramirez, Attorney General Cilia Flores and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. Three opposition governors attended, including Capriles, who was defeated by Chavez in the last presidential vote in October.