Maduro begins new term shunned by Venezuela's neighbours

Thursday January 10 2019

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro flashes the victory sign after being sworn-in for his second mandate, at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas on January 10, 2019. PHOTO | YURI CORTEZ | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro began a new term Thursday that will keep him in power until 2025, with the economy in ruins and his regime more isolated than ever as neighbouring presidents shunned his inauguration after declaring his re-election illegitimate.

The 56-year-old socialist leader was sworn in by Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno as an audience of hundreds, including a handful of South American leftist leaders and Venezuela's military top brass, cheered and applauded.

"I swear on behalf of the people of Venezuela... I swear on my life," Maduro said confidently as he took the oath of office.

After being presented with the presidential sash, an ebullient Maduro turned to salute the crowd with a V-sign.

Legitimacy

Maduro was re-elected last May in voting boycotted by the majority of the opposition and dismissed as a fraud by the United States, European Union and Organization of American States.

Even as he was sworn in, the United States said it would not recognise Maduro as president, and vowed to increase the pressure on a regime it brands a dictatorship.

"The US will not recognize the Maduro dictatorship's illegitimate inauguration," national security advisor John Bolton tweeted.

In a special session in Washington, the Organization of American States similarly backed a resolution declaring Maduro's government illegitimate.

Since early morning, soldiers deployed onto the streets in the west of the capital where the Supreme Court is located amid heightened security.

Pro-Maduro supporters planned a demonstration later Thursday. Some schools have suspended classes for the occasion.

Posters of Maduro hanging in the centre of the city declared "I am President".

A smiling Maduro arrived at the court building serenaded by a choir singing patriotic songs.

He blew kisses at a welcoming party of children waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags, and saluted supporters looking down from the building's multi-tiered galleries.

'Diplomatic measures'

With the exception of Mexico, the Lima Group — made up of 14 mostly Latin American countries — has urged Maduro to renounce his second term and deliver power to parliament, a demand Caracas blasted as incitement to stage a coup d'etat.

Maduro has meanwhile threatened "diplomatic measures" against his regional detractors if they refuse to recognise his re-election.

Neither the EU nor the Lima Group sent a representative to the inauguration, with Lima Group member Paraguay announcing immediately after the ceremony that it was breaking off diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

Leftist presidents Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia, El Salvador's Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega were present for the inauguration, as were representatives of Russia, China and Turkey. Mexico sent a low-level diplomat.

A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro is the handpicked successor of the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.

Maduro has gained control of virtually all of Venezuela's political institutions and enjoys the support of the military.

Economic meltdown

But his first term saw an exodus of millions of people escaping economic meltdown. The UN has said more than five million will have fled by the end of this year.

The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela's economy will shrink by five percent next year with inflation — which reached 1.35 million percent in 2018 — hitting a staggering 10 million percent.

He says he feels stronger and more legitimate than ever, but many blame him for Venezuela's economic woes, which have left much of the population living in poverty with shortages of basic foods and medicines.

Thursday's ceremony took place in the Supreme Court rather than the sidelined, opposition-controlled parliament, which has refused to recognise Maduro.

Recall referendum

While the opposition has tried to dislodge Maduro, it remains fractured, having launched a failed bid in March 2016 for a recall referendum aimed at removing Maduro from office before the end of his term.

Many prominent opposition figures are either in jail or exile and various factions continue to squabble over power while the National Assembly, the one institution they control, has been left impotent after Maduro created the rival Constituent Assembly and filled the Supreme Court with loyalists who annul every decision made by parliament.

Washington has sanctioned a number of individuals in Venezuela as it cranks up the pressure on the Maduro government it blames for the country's economic meltdown.

Maduro claims sanctions cost the country $20 billion in 2018. The opposition says the government's control of foreign exchange, in place since 2003, has generated $300 billion in illicit gains.

According to the United Nations, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015 to escape economic hardship.

Anti-government riots in 2014 left 43 dead, and at least 125 people died in months of protests in 2017.

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