Tough-talking Nicolás Maduro is sworn in as Venezuela’s president


New Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ended his inaugural address with a call for unity in a nation split by a bitterly contested election.

Special to The Miami Herald

The sounds of salsa and fireworks echoed through the capital as Nicolás Maduro was sworn in as president of Venezuela Friday following a week of protests over his razor-thin victory.

Throngs of red-clad Maduro supporters crammed the city center for the swearing-in ceremony of Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor. But the cacophony of celebration competed with the sounds of protest from supporters of losing candidate Henrique Capriles.

“I swear to God, Christ the Redeemer, in him and through him, for the people of Venezuela, by the eternal memory of the supreme comandante,” said Maduro, 50, with his right hand on the Venezuelan constitution as he took the oath of office.

The one-time union organizer and former foreign minister and vice president took the reins after a heated snap election on Sunday to elect a successor to Chávez, who died last month after 14 years in power.

Capriles, 40, is contesting the election results, claiming that some 3,200 voting “irregularities” occurred during the tally. Unrest that broke out across the country after a recount was initially denied has claimed eight lives and left dozens more injured.

But in a surprise concession Thursday night, the National Electoral Council said it will now audit an additional 46 percent of the votes cast last Sunday. It had audited 54 percent of the vote when the review was called off earlier this week.

In a fiery speech to the National Assembly, Maduro blamed Capriles and his supporters for this week’s violence. The speech was boycotted by the opposition.

“To those who voted against me, I am the president for the coming years,” said Maduro, who earlier this week threatened to use a “hard hand” against the opposition.

“I was trained by Comandante Hugo Chávez,’’ he said.

The new president also criticized Capriles supporters for attacking health centers staffed with Cuban and Venezuelan doctors. “What would have happened if they [the opposition] had won? Would there have been a hunt against Cuban and Venezuelan doctors?”

Among those who attended the inauguration were Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Delegations from 61 countries were in attendance. The United States was represented by a delegate from its embassy in Caracas.

The ceremony was briefly interrupted when an unknown man in a red jacket rushed the stage as Maduro was speaking and grabbed the microphone. He was quickly detained.

“There’s been a security failure,” said a visibly ruffled Maduro before continuing his speech. “That man could have shot me here.”

Much of Maduro’s speech paid tribute to the fallen leader whose portrait covered the walls of the National Assembly.

After receiving the yellow, blue and red presidential sash from Maria Gabriela Chávez, the late president’s daughter, Maduro proclaimed, “I’m the first chavista president of Venezuela, the first of many.”

The government’s acceptance of the vote review is widely seen as a means to quell unrest and the Capriles camp reacted favorably to the news.

“We are where we want to be,” Capriles said after the late Thursday night announcement of the vote audit. “I think I will have the universe of voters needed to get where I want to be.”

Following a series of cacerolazos — a Latin American protest involving the clanging of pots and pans — Capriles urged supporters to stay home Friday and blare music.

But those who gathered outside the inaugural ceremony seemed unconcerned about an emboldened opposition.

“They’ll never come back,’’ said Oscar Gonzalez, a 62-year-old construction worker. Asked about the challenges the Maduro government faces, Gonzalez responded, “Chávez is who remains in charge here, and if Maduro can’t cut it, we’ll find someone who can.”

Maduro made a call for unity as he ended his address.

“I call for the end of division in the country,’’ he said. And he indicated a willingness to talk to everyone, including “politicians of the opposition’’ about the various scenarios the country may face.

“I am willing to talk … I am willing to talk with the devil, God forgive me,’’ he said.

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