By Robert Valencia
Nearly five minutes to midnight, the National Electoral Council (CNE in Spanish) announced that Venezuela’s interim president and Hugo Chávez’s heir apparent Nicolás Maduro won the April 14 presidential election, defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski with only 50.66 percent of the vote. With reports of vote-rigging and fraud, Capriles, who garnered 49.07 of vote, has been reluctant to concede. But even if these numbers stand, the surprisingly narrow victory and the ongoing post-election fiasco suggest a gradual decline of chavismo and the continuation of a deep political polarization rooted in Chávez’s 14-year reign.
With Chávez dead, the opposition is closing in. In October 2012, Chávez won the presidency with 55 percent, while Capriles secured 44 percent of the vote. The April 14 results demonstrate a growing dissatisfaction among Venezuelans, particularly those from the Bolivarian Revolution’s ranks. Chávez-leaning inhabitants from the cities of Valencia or Ciudad Guayana, for example, outlined a swath of unfulfilled promises from the 14-year-long Chávez administration. Under Chávez, only 370,000 houses were constructed in the last two years. That number falls short of the demand, as 3 million Venezuelans have applied for government housing. Many Venezuelans have been forced to squat in private properties. With an aging electrical grid, Venezuela experiences power outages four to five times a week, and a failing oil refinery infrastructure has caused oil exports to fall by more than 300,000 barrels per day since 2007. All this in a country that is home to the world’s largest oil reserves.
Prior to the April 14 elections, there were no concrete solutions to Venezuela’s problems. Fear mongering, name-calling, and accusing each other of murder plots prevailed during the two-week presidential race. In an attempt to highlight the image of Chávez, Maduro explained that the former comandante appeared to him in the shape of a bird: “I felt him [Chávez] there as if he were blessing us, telling us that today our battle begins. As I was praying in a small chapel in Barinas, suddenly a small bird entered and hovered around my head three times and chirped. I felt his spirit.” His comments became the butt of jokes on media and social media platforms. But the reaction to his comments did not deter Maduro from using Chávez as his campaign springboard. Under the slogans “Chávez lives, the fight goes on!” and “I swear to you Chávez that my vote is for Maduro,” Maduro has proclaimed himself to be a “son of Chávez” as he rallies across the country with images of Hugo Chávez displayed on jumbotrons in stadiums and squares.
Maduro doesn’t have the same charisma Chávez had, but he can still rely on his association with the deceased leader. A website called Madurodice.com (“Maduro says,” in Spanish) has counted 7,288 instances where Maduro has invoked Chávez’s name. Following his reelection in October 2012, Chávez named Maduro his successor, saying Maduro is capable of carrying the Bolivarian Revolution’s torch. Maduro, however, has met some animosity even among his fellow chavistas, and factions of Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela showed support for Capriles. Maduro voters did not turnout in the expected numbers, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm among his supporters.
Maduro’s vitriolic, parochial rhetoric and actions resemble those of Chávez. He expelled two U.S. diplomats a few hours before announcing the death of Chávez on March 5, accusing both U.S. attachés of destabilizing the country. Maduro blames the United States of having inflicted cancer on Chávez and accused former American diplomats of plotting to kill him. The same virulent rhetoric has been directed toward the opposition and Capriles, whom Maduro has called a “Pharisee from the Venezuelan bourgeoisie that has derailed the economy,” and an “obsessed, silly boy” who has abandoned his governorship of the Miranda state to pursue the higher office. Maduro also claimed that whoever casts a vote for Capriles “will be damned.”
With an iron grip on TV and other media outlets, four out of five members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) on his side, the unstoppable cash flow from oil revenues, 60 percent of the Venezuelan Congress, and 20 out of 23 governorships belonging to Maduro’s United Socialist Party, Maduro should have won by a landslide. In less than 10 days, Capriles managed to attract nearly 679,000 votes while Maduro lost about the same number.
Capriles has refused to recognize Maduro’s narrow victory and asked the CNE not to proclaim Maduro as president. Despite Capriles’ petition, supported by the U.S. and the Organization of American States, the CNE recognized Maduro as the president-elect on April 15 and refused to do another vote recount, thus prompting thousands of Capriles supporters to protest by way of the emblematic cacerolazos, which consist of banging pots or pans. Now, Maduro faces numerous challenges during his six-year administration, such as high crime rate and an infrastructure in shambles, but his biggest challenge is the economy. According to a document published by Spanish newspaper ABC, Maduro’s economic team forecast that the Revolution’s economic model is untenable and that different measures may be necessary in order to put Venezuela back on track. Shortage in basic goods such as cooking oil, rice, and meat as well as double-digit inflation that could reach 50 percent this year are just some of the outcomes of Chávez’s fiscal mismanagement of Venezuela. In addition, Maduro will have to demonstrate before a disgruntled Socialist cohort that he is capable of embodying Chávez’s leadership both in Venezuela and abroad. But most importantly, the Bolivarian Revolution no longer has a monopoly on politics. Maduro may have won the election, but in the long run, it appears his Revolution is losing.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.
[Photo courtesy of Joka Madruga.]