While Hugo Chavez’s chosen heir, Nicolas Maduro, was declared the winner of Sunday’s election, his opponent, Henrique Capriles, has rejected that result.
The race was closer than anyone expected. The most recent polls had still given Maduro a 10-point lead, but the final result was 50.8% to 49%, with a 78% turnout rate. And with results that close, the response in some parts of the country has turned ugly.
The exchanges between Maduro and Carpriles included accusations of coup planning on the part of the opposition from Maduro, while Capriles argued that Maduro and his coalition rigged the vote.
Of course, Maduro also accused the United States of supporting the opposition and seeking to sow discord in the wake of the election. The State Department has issued a statement categorically denying this.
Things have escalated in protests across the country, with reports emerging that eight Venezuelans have died as a result. (So far I have not been able to find out if you dead were opposition, Maduro supporters, or a mix of both. There have been mixed reports. It looks like at least one was an opposition protester, but the government is trying to claim him as their own.)
The opposition protested in a form often used in Latin America, which was to bang pots and pans together through the night. Maduro’s supporters, meanwhile, set off fireworks to drown out the noise.
There are also reports of attacks against health clinics run by Cuban doctors. Cuba trains doctors who are then often sent to serve poor communities throughout Latin America, and the close relationship between Venezuela and Cuba in recent years (and the cheap oil exports Chavez provided) means that Venezuela has a particularly large number of Cuban doctors in the country.
The opposition has in the past criticized the close ties with Cuba. Capriles, however, has denounced violence and stated that anyone who participated in the attacks is not welcome in his coalition.
In the same speech, he accused the government of intimidation and said they forced opposition poll observers out of polling places. Capriles had called off an opposition rally following the attacks.
Election Results Audit?
Capriles (and the White House) is calling for a recount. At first, there were some conflicting reports on whether or not that would happen, but the country’s chief justice has stated that a manual recount is not possible. Apparently, elections in Venezuela can be confirmed through a “system audit.” Venezuela has electronic voting machines, but in the interest of full disclosure, I will say I am not totally sure what a “system audit” means, but I believe it goes something like this: When a Venezuelan votes, they are given a receipt with a unique ID number on it, and election officials at the polling place check the receipts to make sure they match with what the machine is recording.
That process has been completed for 54% of the votes.
UPDATE 4/20/2013 The National Electoral Council will audit the rest of the electronic votes. Capriles has welcomed this decision and believes it will vindicate him.
A key problem in Venezuela is that during his 14 years in office, Chavez did not build a lot of strong institutions at the national level. He is commonly described as a populist (which is often given a negative connotation in U.S. media), and in some ways that is accurate, though it was not always a bad thing. In some regards, it meant he utilized a more direct form of democracy in terms of frequently having referenda and establishing small scale, community-based councils that could get government funding for the local projects they determined to be most important, rather than being directed by the central government.
But the lack of strong democratic institutions on a national level is precisely what led to an environment in which election results can be so contested that they lead to the death of Venezuelans. Furthermore, it is true that the government Chavez left behind is so full of Chavistas that it is almost impossible for the opposition to trust the institutions. That is not necessarily to say that I don’t believe the election results, because I was not present. But it is definitely not unreasonable for the opposition to doubt them.
The electoral council that ruled on the election results consisted of five people, four of whom are considered to be Chavistas. If I were the opposition, I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in their ruling either.
So although Maduro will be sworn in as president on Friday, Venezuela is probably in for a pretty tumultuous time ahead. The opposition is gaining strength. In the race against Chavez himself last October, Capriles lost by 11%. To have that gap narrowed to less than 2% percent means we’ll probably see much more contention between the Chavez coalition and the opposition moving forward, although hopefully no one else will die because of it.
Furthermore, the Chavista coalition may not hold together as well without the iconic leader. Diosdado Cabello, the Chavista speaker of the national assembly, has apparently stated that the close election results means the coalition has to start examining itself and its policies more critically.
That is especially interesting because Cabello, according to the constitution, should actually have been sworn in as the acting president following Chavez’s death until the election, not Maduro, and is considered by some to be Maduro’s main potential rival for power within the Chavista coalition.
All of this has led to Time declaring, rather dramatically, that “even if Nicolas Maduro won, he lost.” My favorite (and by “favorite” I mean “least favorite because of its blatantly paternalistic tone towards the people of Venezuela as a whole”) statement in that first paragraph is the author’s allegation that “Venezuelans, with Chávez’s blustering figure gone, now recognize the raft of economic and social messes he left behind.”
So basically, the implication here is that Venezuelans, as a people, are so easily distracted that they didn’t realize, for example, that crime was reaching record new heights and that inflation was solidly in the double digits. They just completely didn’t notice or care because that Chavez guy, he made some cool speeches.
This attitude, which is unfortunately widespread in U.S. mainstream media and politics, ignores the fact that under Chavez, inequality and poverty decreased sharply. Venezuelan poverty dropped 30% while Chavez was in office, and extreme poverty, defined by the UN as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services” dropped by 13%.
While many problems remain in Venezuelan society, it is nonetheless completely possible that during the past few years, inequality and poverty reduction were top priorities for a lot of people, and that waning support for the Chavista coalition might instead be a result of the fact that now that those problems have been mitigated, other issues are coming to the foreground and causing people to reassess their political goals.
So while the rest of the Time article identifies some serious points of concern for Maduro moving ahead, its intro was, in my opinion, pretty outrageous in its condescension for the Venezuelan population.
However, the author may be right that Venezuela will soon see more support for the less radical leftist policies that have proved successful in Brazil and other parts of South America.