Nicolas Maduro is sworn in as Venezuelan president after disputed election


Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro cheer when they gather in front of the Congress before the inauguration ceremony of Maduro, in Caracas on April 19, 2013. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
April 19, 2013

Nicolas Maduro was sworn in Friday as president after a disputed presidential election that has sharply divided the country between Venezuelans who want to continue the socialist system begun by his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and those who contend that the ruling party won through a fraudulent vote.

The inauguration, which many Latin American leaders but no U.S. diplomat attended, came a day after the National Electoral Council ruled that an audit of Sunday’s voting could take place. The decision mollified opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who said that by reviewing millions of votes “we can show the country the truth.”

For Chavistas, as those in government call themselves, the inauguration of Maduro signaled the continuation of Chavez’s self-styled revolutionary government, now in its 15th year in power.

“I’m president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” said Maduro, 50, using the name Chavez gave Venezuela to reflect the importance of independence-era hero Simon Bolivar. “I am going to govern this country the next few years. I’ll know what I’m going to do. I have the know-how. The commander, Hugo Chavez, prepared me to assume responsibilities.”

But Maduro’s presidency started off shakily, with a man in the ruling party red storming the podium in the National Assembly and grabbing at the microphone as the new leader began his inauguration speech. State television quickly turned the cameras elsewhere for viewers nationwide, and Maduro was unhurt as bodyguards seized the intruder.

“The security has failed completely,” Maduro said. “They could have shot me.”

He then said that the incident was a reminder of the importance of security — a reference to the larger message he has hammered all week, that his government needs to guard against coup plotters who he says want to oust him with the Obama administration’s help.

“Fascists!” Maduro said. “They disguise themselves, but they have very evil intentions against not just our people but against the people of the continent.”

Before the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Iran and several other countries, Maduro characterized his government as a peaceful model of hope facing down a threat that he equated with Nazi Germany. He pledged to defeat his opponents, not just for Venezuela’s sake but for the good of Latin America.

“We need to act on time,” he said in rambling comments that lasted nearly two hours. “Europe did not act fast enough against the Nazi threat.”

Inauguration protested

Maduro’s presidency starts off at a time of intense political crisis, with the opposition claiming that it won the election by a hair, citing hundreds of irregularities in polling booths nationwide. The electoral council said Maduro won by nearly 270,000 votes out of 14.9 million cast, a margin of victory of less than 2 percent.

The uncertainty means that Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, lacks the political mandate that Chavez enjoyed in one electoral victory after another. Chavez, who first won office in 1998, died last month after a battle with cancer, plunging his followers into grief and prompting Sunday’s snap election to decide who would finish his term.

“To be able to do anything with the country deeply divided and 49 percent of the population questioning if you even have a right to be president is going into it with your hands tied behind your back,” said Cynthia Arnson, who directs the Latin America program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

As Maduro was inaugurated, protesters banged pots and pans from doorways and windows and played salsa music, as Capriles had requested in a Twitter message.

Still, the streets were less tense after the electoral council’s decision on the audit, which was a surprising reversal because that body is stacked with government supporters. Earlier in the week, the council insisted that a review of the voting was not necessary, fending off demands by the opposition for a vote-by-vote recount.

That led to street demonstrations Monday and Tuesday that government officials said left eight people dead and dozens wounded. Then on Thursday, Tibisay Lucena, the head of the council, said an audit of 12,000 boxes loaded with votes would be conducted, taking a month to complete.

The examination by technicians will include comparing the paper receipts that were emitted by voting machines with a registry of the voters who cast ballots at each machine.

Though he had initially asked for a more extensive and complex recount, Capriles, 40, a lawyer and governor, said the council’s decision creates a possibility of resolving the crisis. “We know where the problems were,” he said, “in those 12,000 is where the problems were.”

The government said 54 percent of the vote had already been checked after the voting Sunday. Now, the council said it will scrutinize the other 46 percent of the votes.

Capriles said his campaign had detected 3,200 voting irregularities, including gunmen at polling stations, rolls that included dead voters and polling stations where opposition officials were forced out.

Decrying the opposition

Meanwhile, state-run TV and radio stations continued to paint a picture of the opposition as a violent, anti-democratic force whose leaders go to drastic ends to thwart the voice of the people. Broadcasts feature one official after another accusing Capriles and his closest aides of planning violence and threatening legal action.

Maduro and other officials have said the opposition has even attacked clinics. “These are crimes that are a product of racism, social racism,” the new president said in his inauguration, adding that his foes targeted Cuban medical personnel in particular.

Capriles has shot back that the government staged the violence to blame its adversaries and sway public opinion while launching a crackdown leading to beatings and detentions. “Stop chasing the people, stop,” Capriles said Thursday, directing his comments at Maduro.

Arnson, the Woodrow Wilson analyst, said that the electoral council’s decision and Maduro’s acceptance were positive developments. But she also wondered how it would turn out, with Maduro now the president.

“Venezuela excels in bizarre situations in governance,” she said. “So you have agreed to an audit that takes a month to do and at the same time you have Maduro being inaugurated.”

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