South America rushes to back Maduro as U.S. casts doubt on Venezuela vote
LIMA (Reuters) - South American leaders will make a collective show of support for Venezuelan President-elect Nicolas Maduro on Thursday in Lima, officials said, as the United States and his opponents call for a recount of the disputed vote.
Maduro will attend the last-minute meeting of the regional group Unasur in Peru a day before he is to be sworn in on Friday. He was named by late President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in March, as his chosen successor.
Protests erupted in Venezuela after Maduro won Sunday's election by a narrow margin of about 2 percentage points, and at least eight people have been killed in violent clashes.
Before boarding a plane to Lima, Maduro said in a televised speech: "In Venezuela we don't have an opposition, we have a permanent conspiracy cheered on by the United States."
Leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales said Washington had no right to question Maduro's victory because George W. Bush won the presidency by a similarly narrow margin in 2004.
"This is clearly meddling," Morales said in La Paz. "We condemn this and repudiate it. We won't permit that Bolivia or Latin America be treated as the U.S. government's backyard."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday told lawmakers he favored a recount because of possible voting irregularities.
Maduro's supporters have defended the legitimacy of his narrow win with repeated references to the 2000 U.S. election dispute, when the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida and Bush was declared the winner in the state by just 537 votes.
Although moderate South American leaders were expected to voice support for Maduro, it appeared unlikely that they would criticize Washington as openly as Morales.
The governments of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina, among others, have already recognized Maduro's victory, but Washington has not.
The European Union has said it is "concerned by the growing polarization of Venezuelan society" and suggested Venezuelan authorities consider an audit of the vote.
LEADERS TO ATTEND SWEARING-IN CEREMONY
Peru holds the rotating presidency of Unasur and the group's election monitors have said Maduro's win was legitimate.
"We all thought we needed to get together before Maduro's swearing in to show a unified bloc in response to statements from outside of the region and some from within that question the legitimacy of the election," Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said on radio.
Most of the leaders, including President Dilma Rousseff of regional heavyweight Brazil, will head to Venezuela for the swearing-in ceremony after the meeting in Lima.
The outcome of Sunday's vote has been rejected by Maduro's rival, Henrique Capriles, who has alleged thousands of irregularities at polling centers and wants a full audit of the ballots.
Maduro's allies have said a recount is unnecessary because the electoral council had already carried out a partial audit.
But Jorge Rodriguez, a top Maduro ally, said on Wednesday the ruling Socialist Party would not oppose a complete audit of the electronic voting system.
"We are in agreement with any audit, whatever they want," he said. "They can even verify if there are flying saucers that took their (poll station) witnesses to Mars."
The National Electoral Council had audited 54 percent of the votes. Rodriguez said the party would not oppose auditing the remaining 46 percent.
While that is not the manual recount that Capriles has asked for, it could constitute a concession to the opposition that may pave the way for a negotiated settlement of the standoff.
The opposition leader pointedly said, via Twitter, that he was considering going to Lima and had spoken to various heads of state who were "receptive" to the idea of a vote recount.
(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz,; Enrique Andres Pretel and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas, Patricia Velez in Lima, and Alejandro Lifschitz in Buenos Aires; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)