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Maduro takes rocky oath as Venezuela’s new leader

Turnout low for Chavez successor

CARACAS, Venezuela – 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, and 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.

“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.

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.