Venezuela opposition denounces arrests of protesters

Venezuela's opposition Saturday accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro of engaging in mass arrests of protesters, in a contentious start to his new administration.

Maduro, who was sworn in to office on Friday to replace the late Hugo Chavez, said in his inaugural address he was ready for dialogue with the opposition but coupled that with warnings he would take a "hard fist" against those promoting a coup d'etat.

So far, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has remained silent on Maduro's inauguration but his campaign charged that 242 people have been arrested since Monday for banging pots and pans in protests against his disputed election.

"All these people detained across the length and breadth of the country committed the crime, according to the government, of illicit possession of pots," said Delsa Solorzano, a deputy to the Latin American parliament, who accused the government making dissent a crime.

Solorzano said about 100 government workers had complained of harassment in the workplace because of suspicions they had not voted for Maduro.

Maduro was proclaimed winner of the April 14 elections by a 1.8 percent margin, setting off opposition demands for a recount and violent protests that the government said killed eight people.

The National Election Council moved to defuse the crisis on the eve of Maduro's inauguration by announcing an expanded audit of ballot boxes, which Capriles accepted. The process is supposed to take 30 days.

Despite the deepening divisions within the country, Maduro has vowed to continue and build on Chavez's self-styled "socialist revolution" and accused the opposition at every opportunity of seeking a coup d'etat.

On Saturday, the new president visited Chavez's tomb, joining Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner as she who paid her respects to the late leader, who died of cancer March 5 after 14 years in power.

In his only comment since Maduro's swearing-in, Capriles demanded that Kirchner repay Argentina's debt with Venezuela.

"These resources belong to the people. We finance Senora Cristina's campaign... Could it be that the president of Argentina brought the check for the millions of dollars in debt that she has with the Venezuelan people?"

In his inaugural address, Maduro urged the opposition to "converse in the different settings where conversations can be held. I am ready to converse even with the devil."

But reflecting the huge gulf of mistrust to be bridged, he then referred to Capriles as "the new Carmona," a reference to Pedro Carmona, a businessman who took power during a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.

Although Maduro won the elections, the returns also showed that hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters defected to vote for the opposition, a significant slippage for a leftist movement that under Chavez had become accustomed to easy election wins.

The loss of support confronts Maduro with a dilemma over how to shore up his base while dealing with an emboldened opposition and a debt-burdened economy in decline despite Venezuela's oil riches.

Soaring inflation, a weak currency, shortages of basic necessities, and fiscal constraints are a growing challenge to the costly social programs that were among Chavez's signature achievements.

Ensuring the loyalty of the military also could be tricky for Maduro, who has never served in uniform and must contend with an officer corps that has played key political roles under Chavez, a former coup leader who was himself briefly ousted from power.