The Next Chavez?

A narrow victory bought Nicolás Maduro immense power.

Achy Obejas

Miguel Guevara, 73, a Chávez loyalist, stands in his home in Caracas next to an election poster for Chávez's chosen succesor, Nicolás Maduro. (Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images)

The most important number to come out of April’s disputed Venezuelan election is not Nicolás Maduro’s margin of victory (1.5 or 1.8 percent, depending on who you ask). Forget, too, the 3,200 electoral irregularities alleged by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

Maduro and the Chavistas own whatever happens next. They own the economic decline and the promises to reverse it, the climbing murder rate and the promises to stop it, the decline in oil production and the promises to increase it.

The figure that should be weighing on everyone is 645,000 — the number of voters, roughly, who switched sides, giving their vote to Hugo Chávez in October 2012 and then choosing Capriles in April instead of Maduro, Chávez’s chosen political heir.

And to be clear: That number, 645,000, comes not from Capriles, or from the State Department or the European Union, but from Venezuela’s own National Electoral Council (CNE), which resolutely proclaimed Maduro the winner over Capriles. In other words, Venezuela’s own Chavista-controlled and highly partisan electoral board acknowledges the Socialist Party coalition lost more than a half million votes in a mere six months.

Why the big switch? The most likely answer is that Maduro is no Chávez, and that while the people were willing to give Chávez the benefit of the doubt on the country’s recent currency devaluation (32 percent), inflation (26 percent), climbing murder rate (among the highest in the world) and increasing economic woes, they weren’t willing to extend it to Maduro.

The morning after the election, while Capriles called for a recount, Diosdado Cabello, the Chavista president of the National Assembly, called for self-criticism.”

Both those calls were ignored. The CNE denied Capriles his recount and Cabello himself immediately began attacking the opposition. Protests exploded all over Venezuela, and by the time the smoke cleared, nine people were dead and dozens injured. Maduro banned a protest called by Capriles while promising to use a mano dura (“a strong hand”), words with an ugly dictatorial association in Latin America.

It wasn’t until an extraordinary Union of South American Nations meeting to deal with the political tension in Venezuela that the CNE agreed to a recount (which as of early May was still underway).

In the meantime, Maduro has been sworn in as president of Venezuela for the next five-some years. The Chavistas, who have led the country for the last 14 years, control the National Assembly — as well as the CNE, the Supreme Court, and 20 of 23 governorships.

What that means is this: Maduro and the Chavistas own whatever happens next. They own the economic decline and the promises to reverse it, the climbing murder rate and the promises to stop it, the decline in oil production and the promises to increase it. Whatever bill they want to pass, whatever program they want to enact, they have the structural power — and the purse strings — to do it. If they succeed, they need not share credit with anyone. But if they fail, they have absolutely no one else to blame.

Given that singular opportunity, and Maduro’s narrow victory margin, you’d think he would want to get going on some coalition-building. Instead, Maduro seems to have kicked off a campaign to marginalize the opposition. At his swearing in, rather than extend an olive branch, Maduro compared the opposition to Nazi Germany (particularly nasty given Capriles is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors). In late April, he allegedly ordered an investigation into the public statements of government workers and the firing of those found to be disloyal.

Government-controlled TV began broadcasting cadenas—a series of video loops splicing Capriles’ speeches with images of the post-election violence. Cabello called Capriles a fascist murderer,” and Iris Varela, the minister of prisons, told a press conference she was preparing a cell for him and hoped prison would help him shed his fascist thoughts.” Shortly thereafter, parliament set up an inquiry into the violence to determine whether Capriles should be charged with murder and conspiracy to stage a coup.

And in the meantime, with the economy in shambles, an election still in dispute and the possibility that Capriles could wind up in prison, hardly anyone is talking about those 645,000 defectors from the Chávez camp or what their action really means for Venezuela.

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Achy Obejas, a Havana-born member of the In These Times Board of Editors, is the author of Ruins (Akashic 2009, akashic​books​.com) and Aguas & Otros Cuentos (Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2009). A former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, she is also the translator, into Spanish, of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead 2008). She is currently the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College, Oakland, Calif.
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