CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced a major cabinet reshuffle on Thursday after a poll defeat last month wrecked his hopes of winning new powers to push ahead with his declared socialist revolution.
Chavez named a soft-spoken replacement for his combative vice-president, Jorge Rodriguez, and said he was making 12 other cabinet changes.
Rodriguez was blamed by many government supporters for the referendum defeat in December, when voters rejected Chavez’s bid for new powers and the right to run for reelection indefinitely
In recent days, an apparently humbled Chavez has dropped his grandiose revolutionary speeches and has instead promised to tackle issues like crime and garbage collection that more directly affect his grass roots supporters.
In a telephone call to state television, Chavez said his new vice president is Ramon Carrizales, a former housing minister. He did not give details on most of the 12 other cabinet changes.
Chavez said it was important to reach out to Venezuela’s middle class and other sectors of society often alienated by his pro-poor policies.
“We are not extremists and we cannot be. We have to look for alliances with the middle classes,” he said, adding that he had no plans to eliminate private property, a fear of many of his opponents.
On New Year’s Eve, he declared a pardon that is expected to free from jail hundreds of people who took part in a coup that briefly ousted him from power in 2002.
Chavez, 53, is a close friend and ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and Venezuela’s opposition has accused him of trying to establish dictatorial rule.
Chavez’s slogan throughout last year was “socialism or death” and he has not totally abandoned his brash manner, calling on his opponents on Thursday to learn about his political mentors.
“To those who consider themselves holier than the Pope, let them read Lenin. They should meet Fidel Castro some day,” he said.
Rodriguez was a combative figure the left-wing president brought in last year to oversee a wave of nationalizations in the drive toward what Chavez calls “21st Century socialism.”
The proposed reforms shot down by voters in last month’s referendum would have given Chavez direct control over the central bank and sweeping powers to build a socialist state.
His plan was defeated partly because of growing dissatisfaction among supporters with corruption, insecurity and even shortages of products like milk in the oil-rich nation.
In the wake of the poll, Chavez said Venezuelans were not yet mature enough for socialism. He may still bring in some of the more popular changes he proposed as part of the constitutional overhaul, such as social security benefits for workers in the informal sector.
Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel; Editing by Kieran Murray