Venezuelan officials have finally offered some news on the health of President Hugo Chavez, saying he has "respiratory insufficiency" due to a severe lung infection. The rather cryptic message from the Information Minister in Caracas has led to some speculation that he may only be breathing with the aid of a respirator. Chavez has not been seen or heard from since December 11, when he had surgery in Havana, Cuba, as part of his ongoing cancer treatment. One specialist (who is not one of Chavez's doctors and has not treated him) tells ABC News that the description of his condition suggests pneumonia, which could be quite severe, but would not necessarily mean that he needs a machine to breathe.
Whether or not he makes a full recovery, the president's ongoing health problems are threatening to create a constitutional crisis in Venezuela. Chavez won re-election to a second six-year term back in October, and is scheduled to be inaugurated on January 10. However, since the constitution states that he must be sworn in on that date "by the National Assembly," many of his opponents are arguing that the ceremony must actually take place in front of them or he risks losing his position. If they can have him declared "absent from office" that could force the congress to call for new elections. Chavez's allies—including the president of the National Assembly—say it isn't necessary for him to be physically present and no elections are needed. Of course, if he's not even in the country by the time next Thursday rolls around, a case can certainly be made that he's is "absent from office" and new leader is needed.
Then again, neither side has an argument for what happens if he never comes back at all. Should Chavez die, either before or after January 10, the constitution is much more clear on succession and the requirements for another vote.