Venezuela's Maduro due to be sworn in as president

Nicolas Maduro succeeds the late Hugo Chavez as Venezuela's new president Friday, hosting a lavish inauguration after defusing opposition demands for a vote recount and winning the approval of fellow Latin American leaders.

Maduro flew home from Lima, Peru where a summit of South American presidents congratulated him on his victory in snap elections Sunday, shortly after Venezuela's National Election Council yielded to demands for an expanded audit of the results.

Foreign dignitaries also began arriving, including Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba's President Raul Castro, close allies of Venezuela's leftist, anti-American leadership.

Presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Evo Morales of Bolivia have confirmed their attendance.

"19 of April day of the Fatherland today I swear to our people that I will fulfill the plan of the Fatherland and will be loyal to the ideas of (independence hero Simon) Bolivar and Chavez," Maduro wrote on his Twitter account Friday.

Maduro, a 50-year-old onetime bus driver who rose to the heights of power here under Chavez, was to be sworn in in the country's colonial-style National Assembly in the heart of the capital.

Hundreds of people packed the nearby Plaza Bolivar, most of them Chavez supporters bused in from the country and standing by for their new leader to speak to the nation from a stage set up outside the National Assembly.

"Maduro is Chavez's legacy. To support him is to support the supreme commander," said Jose Rendo, a 38-year-old electrician who came from the eastern state of Anzoategui.

A military parade and flyover in the afternoon will show off Venezuela's small arsenal of Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft, helicopters and tanks, a routine but important ritual for Venezuela's politically influential military.

Maduro, who campaigned as Chavez's political "son", was elected with a margin of victory of less than a 1.8 percent over Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who has made rapid gains at the head of a resurgent opposition.

Opposition demands for a recount were followed by violent protests that left eight people dead, igniting a volatile political crisis in the oil-rich OPEC nation as Maduro and Capriles traded fiery accusations over who was to blame.

Late Thursday, with Maduro in Peru seeking support from a summit of South American leaders, National Election Council president Tibisay Lucena stepped in to defuse the tensions.

She announced an expanded audit of the vote in response to the opposition demands for a vote, making clear it would be based on an extensive sample of unaudited ballot boxes and not a vote-by-vote recount.

Capriles immediately accepted, congratulating his followers on their "struggle for the truth."

"I'm sure that sooner or later the truth will surface," said Capriles, who picked up hundreds of thousands of "Chavista" votes since losing to Chavez by 11 points in October presidential elections.

While the audit could in theory raise problems once completed in 30 days, it will not stand in the way of Maduro's inauguration.

The council decision cleared the way for a statement of support for Maduro's presidency by the Union of South American Nations and a call for all sides to "recognize the official results."

"Great success at the UNASUR meeting. Total support for the People and Venezuelan Democracy. Thank you South America! I await you in Caracas," Maduro tweeted after the summit.

Chavez's self-proclaimed "apostle," Maduro has yet to step out of the shadows of his flamboyant political mentor, who towered over Venezuelan life for 14 years before his death of cancer March 5 at age 58.

"I am going to be the first Chavista president in history," Maduro said on the eve of his swearing in. The new first lady, Cilia Flores, is a heavyweight in her own right in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

Maduro promises to uphold Chavez's legacy of ruling in favor of the poorest Venezuelans -- nearly 30 percent of the country's 29 million people -- and to maintain the popular social programs funded with the country's oil wealth.

But while backed fiercely by the PSUV and the deep pockets of Venezuela's state oil industry, the mustachioed Maduro emerged weakened from the elections, which saw a significant slippage of support among Chavez loyalists.

In a country already deeply divided, he must deal with an emboldened opposition and a military that grew accustomed to playing key political roles under Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel who led a failed military uprising in 1992.

And as president, he faces a somber economic outlook -- soaring inflation, a weak currency, shortages of basic necessities, and fiscal constraints on the extensive social programs that were among Chavez's signature achievements.

Lacking in Chavez's magnetism, Maduro nonetheless has taken on major political responsibilities before, serving as speaker of the national assembly, then as foreign minister, and finally as vice president, when Chavez selected him as his hand-picked successor.