Drama as Venezuelan president sworn in

2013-04-20 14:13
A spectator, centre in red jacket, is surrounded by bodyguards after rushing to the podium where President Nicolas Maduro, right, was speaking at the start of his inauguration speech inside the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. (Francisco Boza

A spectator, centre in red jacket, is surrounded by bodyguards after rushing to the podium where President Nicolas Maduro, right, was speaking at the start of his inauguration speech inside the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. (Francisco Boza

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Caracas - Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as president of Venezuela on Friday, in a ceremony replete with drama as he replaced the late Hugo Chavez and urged dialogue with the opposition to build a better country.

To cheers in the National Assembly, Maduro dedicated his oath of office to "the eternal memory of the supreme commander" Chavez, who dominated this oil-rich South American country for 14 years until he died from cancer in March.

But the new leader's speech was briefly disrupted when a man in a red shirt rushed onto the stage and roughly pushed Maduro aside to grab the microphone, a breach that led to national television coverage of the event being suspended.

The intruder was removed from the stage and Maduro returned minutes later, clearly angry at the disruption.

"Security has absolutely failed. They could have shot me here," he said, but shaking it off, then declared: "Incident overcome."

Maduro, aged 50, said in his address that he wanted to begin his presidency "with a call to all Venezuelan men and women to continue to build a better fatherland of peace, an inclusive fatherland for everyone, by everyone".

Attack resumed

He urged the opposition to "converse in the different settings where conversations can be held. I am ready to converse even with the devil".

But he then resumed his attacks on those same foes, highlighting what has been a week of soaring political tensions since he was declared the winner of Sunday's snap elections by a narrow margin of 1.8 percentage points.

Looking on were foreign leaders, lawmakers and other dignitaries who packed the assembly chamber for the swearing-in.

Close allies Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran were in the audience, along with the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Nicaragua, and neighbouring Colombia.

Maduro had met the night before in Lima with regional leaders who extended their congratulations to the new government and urged all sides in the bitterly contested elections to accept "the official results".

The endorsement came just hours after Venezuelan election authorities announced they would conduct an expanded audit of Sunday's ballot returns in response to opposition demands for a full recount.

Eight dead


Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles immediately accepted, congratulating his followers on their "struggle for the truth".

Violent post-election protests left eight people dead and dozens hurt, igniting a crisis as Maduro and Capriles traded fiery accusations over who was to blame.

For Maduro, the election was the culmination of a political career that took him from one-time bus driver and union organiser to Chavez's handpicked successor.

"I am the first post-Chavez president in history," Maduro said on the eve of his swearing-in. The new first lady, Cilia Flores, is a heavyweight in her own right in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

But Maduro also lost the votes of hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters to Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who was defeated by the comandante in October by an 11-point margin.

The weak election performance suggested Maduro has yet to step out of Chavez's giant shadow with a mandate of his own.

Loyalty

"Maduro is Chavez's legacy. To support him is to support the supreme commander," said Jose Rendo, a 38-year-old electrician who joined hundreds of other Chavez supporters in the nearby Plaza Bolivar for the inauguration.

As Maduro entered the National Assembly, supporters showered him with cheers of "Chavez lives, the struggle continues".

Later at an esplanade dedicated to the country's founders, military leaders pledged their loyalty to Chavez's socialist revolution and their new commander-in-chief.

"The military revolution of Bolivar and Chavez continues, you can be sure of that," Maduro told them.

Air defence missiles, tanks and armoured vehicles paraded past along with honour guards, military units and civilian "missions" as Maduro watched through pouring rain from a covered reviewing stand.

Maduro singled out Russia and China, major suppliers to the Venezuelan military, for thanks at the end of the parade.

Growing challenges


Ensuring the loyalty of the military could be tricky for Maduro, who has never served in uniform and must contend with an officer corps that has played key political roles under Chavez, a former coup leader who was himself briefly ousted from power.

While backed fiercely by the ruling PSUV and the deep pockets of Venezuela's state oil industry, Maduro must also contend with an emboldened opposition and a sombre economic outlook.

Soaring inflation, a weak currency, shortages of basic necessities and fiscal constraints are a growing challenge to the costly social programmes that were among Chavez's signature achievements.

Read more on:    henrique capriles  |  hugo chavez  |  nicolas maduro  |  venezuela
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