According to Venezuela’s constitution, Hugo Chavez—elected president for an unprecedented fourth term in October 2012—must be sworn in as president on January 10, but it will not happen. Like so many constitutional principles in Venezuela, this requirement, according to Vice President Nicolas Maduro, is just a “formality.”

Never mind the fact that the Venezuela constitution states that “‘When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election…shall be held within 30 consecutive days.’ The article defines ‘permanently unavailable’ (falta absoluta in Spanish) as death, resignation, removal from office, certified permanent physical or mental disability or a recall.”

For now, nothing will happen on January 10. The men and women loyal to Chavez, who dominate the executive, the legislative body, and the submissive courts, have made a different interpretation and agreed at Maduro’s request to postpone the inauguration, stating that the Supreme Court can administer the oath of office at some later date.

Currently, Chavez’s health situation is described as “stable.” A veil of secrecy shrouds every aspect of the commandante’s health prospects since he underwent cancer surgery in Havana on December 11.

The action certainly appears to violate the orderly intent of the Venezuelan constitution and opens questions regarding the legality of Chavez’s new presidential term, including a possible violation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter’s prohibition against interruptions in the constitutional order.

Outrage and frustration within much of the opposition reflect a widening concern about who is actually governing Venezuela. Fiercely noted a blogger in Caracas Chronicles, “the scale of the collapse of the rule of law…is stunning! We’re shredding the last remains of law-based government for no reason at all beyond chavismo’s obdurate refusal to accept what’s plainly evident—that Chavez is not in fact capable of exercising the office of the presidency at this time.”

Delaying the inauguration buys time for Chavez’s possible recovery while delaying a bitter succession fight between rival factions. It also keeps the political ball in the Chavista court, giving his followers time to prep for the next presidential election and develop a media/propaganda strategy aimed at easing the way for Chavismo without Chavez.

For now, the Obama Administration’s response has been strictly hands-off, devoid of any sense of urgency. It appears content to register concern, urge greater transparency, and advocate in rather utopian fashion “a level political playing field in Venezuela.” Perhaps, sadly said, some of our diplomatic bureaucrats may concur with Vice President Maduro’s view that constitutional principles are just formalities.