Venezuela's Maduro retains key Chavez ministers
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro launched a "government of the streets" Monday with new finance and interior ministers, even as his election to replace the late Hugo Chavez remained in dispute.
Other key ministers who had been appointed by Chavez were confirmed in their posts, including the foreign, defense and energy portfolios in a line-up that also ratified Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza as vice president.
The changes suggested that Maduro, who narrowly escaped defeat at the polls April 14, intends to tackle two major sources of public discontent -- an inflation-ravaged economy and soaring violent crime.
"We have to control inflation," Maduro said in announcing his so-called "government of the streets" late Sunday, saying more goods needed to be made in Venezuela to deal with "overheated" domestic consumer demand.
He split the ministry of planning and finance in two, naming central bank chief Nelson Merentes the new finance minister to replace Jorge Giordani, who was left in charge of the separate planning ministry.
Giordani was the architect of a system of strict foreign currency controls that critics say have contributed to shortages, a sharp decline in investment and Latin America's highest inflation rate, at more than 20 percent.
Maduro praised Giordani as "one of the most loyal men Chavez had," but said Merentes was "a brain on the economy" who would bring new ideas on how to control speculation and inflation.
The president said Merentes' goal was to reduce inflation to single digits in three years, and proposed the creation of special economic zones as a way of attracting foreign investment to boost domestic production.
He also named his intelligence chief, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, as minister of the interior and justice "to protect and build the foundations of peace" in a country with one of the world's highest murder rates.
The new government came after an estimated 700,000 voters swung to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles following his 11 point loss to Chavez in October presidential elections.
Maduro was proclaimed the winner with a 1.8 percentage point margin.
National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful Chavista figure after Maduro, said Sunday he had ordered an internal review within the ruling party to try to understand what happened.
He said the spirit of self-criticism should also extend to the government.
Meanwhile, the opposition's fight for a recount of the April 14 election moves back to National Electoral Council, which has promised an audit of the vote while warning it will not overturn Maduro's win.
Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina and is the first pontiff from Latin America, said in a statement from the Vatican Sunday that he was following events in Venezuela "with great concern."
"I invite the dear Venezuelan people, and in particular its institutional and political leaders, to establish a dialogue based on the truth, mutual recognition in the search for the common good and out of love for the nation," he said.
Maduro responded: "I agree, Pope Francis. I'm concerned about the intolerance, the hate and the violence that generated deaths and injured."
Capriles tweeted: "A million thanks to Pope Francis for his mention of our Venezuela and the search for solutions founded on the truth."
In an interview with the Ultimas Noticias daily, Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the head of the Venezuelan church, offered to help arrange a dialogue.
The Catholic Church has often mediated in Latin American conflicts but was largely sidelined in Venezuela under Chavez, a leftwing populist who claimed to be a devout Catholic but often clashed with the bishops.
Urosa acknowledged the church's appeals have often gone unheeded.