January 27, 2010 / 8:44 PM / 7 years ago

Venezuela marches continue, Chavez shuffles cabinet

<p>Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas January 26, 2010.Miraflores Palace/Handout</p>

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned on Wednesday that he may quicken his drive to build a socialist state, as he shuffled his cabinet amid opposition demonstrations sparked by closure of a television station.

The leftist leader is already facing a tough start to 2010 with growing complaints over shortages of electricity and water and a sharp currency devaluation that could harm the chances of his supporters in congressional elections in September.

In a sign he may be preparing for a combative year, Chavez has responded to these challenges by designating a vice president known for radical views and pushing the opposition station RCTV off subscription TV networks.

The move against RCTV has sparked opposition protests this week during which two students have been killed.

"If you're going to head down the path of destabilization, I'm warning you it will yield the opposite result of what you're seeking -- that we may decide to speed up the changes," Chavez, who recently declared himself a Marxist, said in televised comments.

Chavez has nationalized large swathes of the economy in recent years, including the telecommunications and the electricity sector -- which now faces deepening problems.

This month he took over a hyper-market chain run by a French retailer after accusing the company of price gouging.

Opposition and pro-Chavez students held rival but small rallies on Wednesday, gathering on campus and in public squares, and prepared a wave of marches in the coming days.

Local media reported minor disturbances between security forces and protesters in the cities of Maracaibo and Puerto la Cruz.

Discontent

Chavez late on Tuesday tapped Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua to be vice president following this week's resignation of Ramon Carrizalez, a long-time Chavez confidant who also served as defense minister.

Jaua, who will maintain his post as agriculture minister, is a former university student activist with a calm demeanor but a reputation for being among Chavez's more radical proteges.

He was a key leader of Chavez's land reform campaign that expropriated a number of large farms and divided the land among poor small farmers, grabbing international headlines and spooking Venezuela's agribusiness leadership.

"He's had very radical positions throughout his life," said Carlos Machado, an agricultural expert at the IESA university in Caracas. "One gets the impression that (Chavez) is working with a very small group of advisors, several of which hold two or more positions at once."

Chavez so far this month has fused the finance and planning ministries, replaced the environment and defense ministers and sacked the electricity minister, in part a reflection of his chronic struggle to find qualified advisors he trusts.

Authorities are preparing to renew a power-rationing plan for Caracas, the capital, after Chavez scrapped an earlier effort -- firing his electricity minister in the process -- that left the city in chaos and angered his supporters.

Discontent over these issues has breathed life into an opposition campaign to overturn Chavez's near-complete control over Congress in elections set for September.

OPEC member nation Venezuela is struggling to keep electricity flowing due to a prolonged drought that has crippled dams that generate 70 percent of the country's power and forced rationing of household water.

Editing by Philip Barbara

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