Written by Nancy Menges and Luis Fleischman
According to results reported by the national Elections Committee of Venezuela (CNE), Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor and protege, won the Venezuelan presidential election by a skimpy margin of less than 2%. Once again the Chavistas won because they took advantage of huge state resources that include mass media, intimidation of public employees and the use of the oil giant, PDVSA, to fund their political campaign.
Irregularities include claims that on Election Day about 535 voting machines were damaged and they affected almost 190,000 voters. Henrique Capriles refused to recognize the results, demanded a recount and mobilized his supporters to bang pots and pans. Protesters also burned trash and blocked highways but were chased by the Venezuelan national guard. Maduro reacted negatively by accusing Capriles of carrying a coup d’etat and called out his followers to defend the government. In this way, Maduro was indirectly inciting violence.
On the other hand, Capriles called for peaceful protests to demand the recount of the votes. He also called on the government to begin a dialogue since he received almost half of the votes that need to be taken into account.
Maduro refused to allow Capriles and his supporters to demonstrate and the latter called off the demonstration saying that he will not do anything that could end in violence.
Yet Capriles rightly stands on his demand to get a fair recount. The Government-controlled CNE is not allowing it which could be a sign that fraud indeed has taken place, perhaps not only in this election but in previous elections as well. But most importantly, the government of the PSUV is being challenged as illegitimate.
As the charisma of Chavez disappeared, the Venezuelan people are likely to become more conscious of the situation they have lived in for a decade and a half. Intimidation, bullying, inflation, power outages, food shortages, deterioration of the middle class, a war against the private sector, persecution of opponents, abuse of the judicial power, violation of human rights, and the list is long.
That is why it is important for the international community to support a recount as President Barack Obama and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, have done.
If indeed the result announced by the CNE remain unchanged, the fact that scarcely a month after Chavez’ death, his successor received far fewer votes than Chavez received in the October, 2012 presidential elections is significant. Chavez won the October elections with 54.66% vs. 40.73 % for Capriles. Maduro won with 50.78% Vs. 48. 95% for Capriles. In terms of votes the difference between support of Chavez in October and Maduro on April 14th is 750,000 votes.
This clearly indicates that Maduro’s uncharismatic personality and his often ridiculous attempt to be “Chavez” was only slightly successful and did not convince many of Chavez’s followers.
The question is what will happen next. The head of the military wing of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello, called on the Chavistas to reflect and engage in self-criticism. “It does not make sense for the poor to vote for those who exploit them” Cabello pointed out. Regardless of the opportunism of Mr. Cabello who will probably use these arguments to challenge Maduro’s leadership, it is important to reflect on the meaning of what he said.
If the PSUV represents the poor and Chavez was their savior, why wouldn’t they overwhelmingly support his successor? This shows the irrational power of Chavez and his discourse. For many years those who criticized Chavez’ policies thought that the Venezuelan government’s awful waste of money and resources plus and its mismanagement of the oil sector t would end badly for Venezuelans. However, as long as Chavez was in power, the effervescence of his charisma, his ability to communicate with the masses, and his image as the protector of the poor overcame the reality of the conditions in which they were living. The fact that Venezuela is one of the few countries in Latin America that has not grown economically, expects more unemployment and even higher inflation and decline matters more now than ever before. Maduro can no longer rely on his charisma but on improving the economy.
Only Chavez could create illusions and fascination. Maduro will have to work hard like every boring elected leader. We will hopefully see a transition between the charismatic model of government to a rational one.
However, this could prove to be very difficult. Can Maduro act rationally and make the economy flourish? Does he possess the charisma to change the course of the revolution? It is unlikely. After all, the Bolivarian government and its companies, such as PDVSA, are populated with political loyalists that include a plethora of inept and corrupt people. The professionals are long gone. Maduro is likely to continue the course of the revolution and follow in Chavez’s footsteps. Since he lacks the charisma and ability to galvanize the public, this will put him at the mercy of all the elements that were empowered under Chavez: the Cubans, the co-opted military officers, the boliburgeois, the Bolivarian circles, the militias, and the Para-military.
Under these circumstances, Venezuelans may get tired of this. A highly polarized society will bring about protests and government violence. The Bolivarian Para- military will be quickly mobilized and the whole state apparatus will increase its repression.
With regard to the United States, the New York Times published the morning after the election, a story about Venezuelan-U.S relations under Maduro.
Although Maduro used anti-American rhetoric during the electoral campaign-including the argument that the U.S injected Chavez with the cancer that killed him – he privately told former New Mexico governor and U.S Ambassador to the United nations, Bill Richardson, that he is willing to normalize relations with the United States.
Without suggesting that the United States should reject Maduro’s overtures, it is important not to fall under any illusion. The structure set by the 14 year Chavez rule created a structure that will need to be dismantled.
The Venezuelan government placed the country’s airports, ports, planes, and ships at the disposal of drug cartels. Venezuela became a major transit route for “cocaine out of Colombia and has increased manifold the amount of cocaine flow. Venezuela also developed relations with the FARC harboring and cutting an ideological and militant partnership. It provided FARC with military support, supplies of Russian- and Chinese-made automatic weapons, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and man-portable air defense systems.
Chavez also nurtured relations with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Its relationship with Iran cannot be reduced to a commercial dimension as some analysts have done. Iran has developed a complex relation with Venezuela as well as with some of its allies in the region that includes helping Iran avoiding financial sanctions and providing political support for its nuclear program. Venezuelan diplomats have been involved in helping Hezbollah fund-raising efforts and facilitated the travel of its operatives to and from Venezuela. Today the power of Iran is encroaching on the backyard of the United States, making our own border more vulnerable. Further, Iran’s cooperation with the Mexican drug gang called “Zetas” in the October 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, DC, only confirms our potential vulnerability and terrorist activity in the region.
And if Iran develops nuclear weapons, will Venezuela or other Iranian allies in the region allow them to be posted on their soil? In that case, the United States and the entire region could face a serious threat comparable to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Maduro has also reportedly maintained close relations with Cuba, Iran and with the FARC.
The United States should not take the message to Governor Richardson at face value. It must demand the reversal of these ominous relationships before prematurely celebrating the “beginning of a new era” as well as continuing to support a recount of this last election.
Nancy Menges and Luis Fleischman
Dr. Luis Fleischman is a Senior adviser to the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science and Sociology at Wilkes Honor College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of the upcoming book, "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States."