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Rough inauguration day for new Venezuelan leader

Friday - 4/19/2013, 9:41pm  ET

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro waves from a vehicle, next to his companion Cilia Flores, during a military ceremony recognizing him as Commander-in-chief to the military at the Paseo Los Proceres in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April, 19, 2013. Maduro, who has the support of the Chavista bases, needs all the momentum he can muster to consolidate control of a country struggling with shortages of food and medicines; chronic power outages; one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Inauguration day could have gone better for the man picked to lead Venezuela's socialist revolution for the next six years.

Hours before President Nicolas Maduro's swearing-in, his government announced it would allow a full audit of the razor-thin vote that the opposition says he won by fraud, which analysts said was likely a bow to both domestic and international pressure.

Then the massive crowds that used to pack the streets for late leader Hugo Chavez failed to appear.

Finally, a spectator rushed the stage and interrupted Maduro's inaugural speech, shouting into the microphone before he was grabbed by security.

It was an inauspicious start to the first full term of the burly former bus driver laboring in Chavez's shadow and struggling to inspire the fervor that surrounded the former lieutenant colonel during his 14 years in power. Maduro, who has the support of the Chavista bases, needs all the momentum he can muster to consolidate control of a country struggling with shortages of food and medicines; chronic power outages; one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.

Addressing a dozen heads of state including Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Raul Castro of Cuba and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Maduro promised to address crime and purge the country's popular social service programs of corruption and inefficiency, although he mentioned few specifics.

Alternatively striking conciliatory and incendiary tones, he expressed willingness to deal with the opposition, although the government has made a series of similar promises that it hasn't acted on.

"I call the country to a revolution of socialist efficiency, to fight red tape, corruption, laziness, to fight backwardness, the culture of lethargy ... we'll turn these six years into a miracle of economic prosperity," Maduro said. "We will guarantee peace in this country, only us, and I say that with modesty ... I'm ready to talk even with the devil."

Venezuelan government officials appeared confident there will be no reversal of the result by an audit that's only slated to begin next week and could drag on well into May. Many independent analysts agreed. Still, the announcement of the audit by the government-controlled National Electoral Council was a surprise reversal for a government that insisted all week that there would be no review of Sunday's vote and took a hard line against the opposition -- including the alleged brutal treatment of protesters.

The announcement late Thursday night came moments before the official start of an emergency meeting of the union of South American leaders, Unasur, to discuss Venezuela's electoral crisis. The leaders wound up endorsing Maduro's victory after their meeting in Lima, Peru. Analysts said that appeared to be in exchange for his concession to the audit.

"The democratic legitimacy of Unasur as a group and of each one its members would be placed in doubt if Venezuela refused to accept a recount," said Alexandre Barros, an analyst with the Early Warning political risk group in Brasilia, Brazil.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles said the audit will prove he won the presidency. And even if it leaves the vote standing and calms tensions, the recount will strengthen the opposition against a president whose narrow victory left him far weaker than Chavez ever was, analysts said.

"The regime has no intention of modifying the existing situation," said Vicente Torrijos, a political scientist at Colombia's Universidad del Rosario, suggesting it won't let the audit force them from office.

Still, he said, "I think this is a weak government, incredibly fragile, and it's an unsustainable regime."

The International Monetary Fund said this week that it expects Venezuela's economy to contract 0.1 percent this year compared to 5.5 percent growth in 2012 and to have the region's highest inflation at 27 percent, forcing an inevitable cutback in the public spending that was key to Chavez's popularity.

On Friday, the first day of a long holiday weekend, administration's red-clad backers were fervent but marched in relatively small numbers through the capital, dancing and blowing trumpets, led by riders on horseback and even massive bulls yoked in pairs. Opposition backers leaned out of their windows banging pots and pans in protest as government backers shot fireworks.

As Maduro addressed the crowd inside the National Assembly building, a spectator rushed the stage and pushed him away from the microphone, startling millions watching on national television with a shout that sounded like "Nicolas, my name is Jenry!" before the intruder was tackled and dragged away.

The broadcast cut away, then returned to the lectern and Maduro, who continued his speech.

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