Venezuela's President Maduro starts new term, shrugs off criticism
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro started a second term on Thursday, defying critics in the United States and Latin America who called him an illegitimate usurper of a nation where economic chaos has wrought a humanitarian crisis.
The country’s pro-government Supreme Court, which has largely supplanted the opposition-run Congress, swore him in following a welcome with a symphony orchestra and cheering supporters waving miniature Venezuelan flags.
The ceremony contrasted with the harsh realities that face the former bus driver turned socialist leader, including hyperinflation, severe food and medicine shortages and an exodus of millions of citizens seeking to escape the hardship.
Before he had even completed his inaugural speech, the United States accused him of “usurping power,” and Paraguay announced it was cutting diplomatic ties - a symbol of the growing diplomatic isolation that he will face in the new term.
“A new world has risen up that refuses to be controlled by the imperial and hegemonic orders of a single nation or its satellite countries,” Maduro said following his swearing-in.
“That’s the rallying cry of our revolution to the peoples and governments of the world.”
Supreme Court Chief Maikel Moreno dedicated nearly 20 minutes to explaining why Maduro was not being sworn in by congress, which the ruling Socialist Party has systematically ignored since the opposition took control of the body in 2016.
Opposition leaders have portrayed the inauguration as the moment at which Maduro will be internationally branded a dictator following a widely boycotted 2018 election that many foreign governments described as a farce.
But continued support from the military, a fractured opposition and a relentless crackdown on opposition critics means that Maduro appears to face few serious challenges at home, despite the international outcry.
Maduro’s first agenda item for his second term is a ceremony at Venezuela’s military academy, a telling symbol of the importance of armed forces.
Supporters, many of whom were public servants identified by t-shirts of state agencies, rallied in the center of Caracas to celebrate the new term. Some said Maduro should do more to crack down on business leaders for raising prices.
“Sometimes its hard to find food because businesses hide it and then say its the president’s fault, even though we all know that’s a lie,” said Graciela Laya, 43, a homemaker, at a rally near the Supreme Court.
He won re-election last year despite hyperinflation, chronic food shortages and a severe economic contraction. He blames an “economic war” led by the United States and local opposition adversaries for the country’s woes.
The vast majority of the opposition boycotted last year’s vote on the grounds that it was rigged in favor of Maduro, noting a host of irregularities including Socialist Party tents in which activists offered monetary payments to voters.
The United States and many Latin American and European countries condemned the vote, leaving Maduro backed by just a handful of stalwart allies from leftist governments.
“It is time for Venezuela to begin a transitional process that can restore the constitutional, democratic order by holding free and fair elections that respect the will of the Venezuelan people,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in statement.
Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo said his country was shutting its embassy and pulling out all diplomatic personnel due to what it called a “rupture of constitutional order” caused by the inauguration.
Most other countries plan to maintain their embassies and diplomatic relations with Venezuela, according to sources consulted by Reuters, but most European and Latin American countries did not send diplomats to the inauguration.
Opposition activists have called for protests on Thursday. Authorities have responded by filling streets with police checkpoints and rifle-toting troops.
“This inauguration is illegal,” said Jose Navarro, 17, a student at a small anti-government protest in the restive western city of San Cristobal. “And this military deployment is also an offense to the constitution.”
Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mariela Navas in Maracaibo; editing by Angus MacSwan and Susan Thomas