Yesterday the Mesa de la Unidad sent a letter (see El Universal article here) to the Secretary General of the OAS arguing that the government will be violating the Constitution if Chávez is not sworn in on Thursday, January 10. As I said yesterday, I think that is true. Even with a re-elected president, one term ends and another begins at clearly specified moments, and being sworn-in is not a formality.

However, within Venezuela, this will be a losing battle for the opposition in two ways. If it goes to the Constitutional Chamber of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia the government will undoubtedly get a ruling in its favor. More importantly, in the court of public opinion, this is an issue without legs. Venezuelans tend to think about democracy in substantive, not formal terms. What your average Venezuelan knows is that Chávez was elected by an ample majority in an election with high turnout. They also know he is sick and in intensive care. The fact that their sick president cannot come for his swearing in generates sympathy for his condition, not rage at the violation of abstract rules. Venezuela is a society in which people will whiz through a red light if there are no cars coming but come to a screeching halt at a green light to let a little old lady cross the street.

When in 2010 the government pushed through a series of laws of questionable constitutionality including an enabling law that effectively allowed President Chávez to bypass the National Assembly many of us in the international community were up in arms. However, the government portrayed these laws as necessary to address the problems created by massive flooding and Chávez’s popularity actually went up.

For the average Venezuelan, the opposition’s taking the issue of Chávez’s swearing in to international institutions makes them look like they are trying to take advantage of the situation. It only reinforces the popular image of them as people who use democratic formalities for their own interests and feel more comfortable abroad than at home.