Venezuela threatens oil, trade measures in vote row with US

Venezuela stepped up attacks on the United States Monday, threatening retaliatory measures affecting trade and energy if Washington resorts to sanctions in a row over the country's disputed presidential election.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua leveled the warning after a senior State Department official was quoted as urging Venezuela to recount the votes in the April 14 election to give the public confidence in the result.

"If the United States takes recourse to economic sanctions, or sanctions of any other kind, we will take measures of a commercial, energy, economic and political order that we consider necessary," Jaua warned in a television interview from Quito, Ecuador.

Jaua also said Venezuela held the United States responsible for post-election violence that killed eight people, accusing it of backing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

The United States has so far withheld recognition of the official election results, which gave the late Hugo Chavez's handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro a narrow victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

An audit of the vote is supposed to begin as early as this week, but the National Electoral Council's vice president said Saturday it would not overturn Maduro's victory.

US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson was reported over the weekend to have said that the election council acted too quickly in proclaiming Maduro the winner, and that half of Venezuelans do not have confidence in the result.

Asked whether the United States would impose sanctions if Venezuela refused to recount the votes, Jacobson said she could not say one way or another, according to CNN en Espanol.

"You can be certain that in the face of sanctions of any kind we will respond with economic, political, diplomatic actions to defend the sacred right of the will of the Venezuelan people," he said.

The United States imports some 900,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, which produces between 2.3 million and three million barrels a day. Venezuela, which depends on oil sales for 90 percent of its revenues, sits atop the world's largest proven crude oil reserves.

Maduro, meanwhile, met with his cabinet, which includes new finance and interior ministers but is mostly made up of holdovers, particularly in the key foreign, defense and energy portfolios. Chavez's son-in-law Jorge Arreaza was ratified as vice president.

The changes suggested that Maduro wanted new approaches to 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 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 rejigged cabinet comes as Maduro grapples with the implications of a near loss at the polls. An estimated 700,000 voters swung to 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.