This is a bittersweet day for the Venezuelan opposition. We are convinced that the only factors that won Sunday’s presidential election for Nicolás Maduro, the anointed successor of Hugo Chávez, were electoral manipulation and an obscene abuse of power.
In a country where the systematic erosion of democratic values has been the most consistent feature of 14 years of chavista rule, nothing else can explain Maduro’s victory by the thinnest of majorities — a little over 1 percent.
When I walked with Henrique Capriles, the opposition presidential candidate, to the polling station where we cast our votes in Caracas, I reflected on how far we’d come. Last October, we managed the strongest showing by any candidate against Chávez, losing the election by a respectable 11 points. Then, in December, our poor showing in the state and gubernatorial elections suggested that we’d lost momentum. But Capriles is nothing if not determined: In less than six weeks, he mounted an impressive nationwide campaign that convinced voters that change was possible. As voters arrived at the polling stations, the prevailing mood was that the era of chavismo had finally run its course.
In a healthy democracy, there would be no question that a miniscule victory like Maduro’s would automatically trigger a recount. But this is Venezuela, where four of the five representatives on the National Electoral Council, the CNE, are loyal chavistas. Spitting upon the popular will, the CNE declared that its tally of the vote was “irreversible.” After initially taunting Capriles that he was welcome to recount the ballots, Maduro changed his tune, calling for the vote to be respected. As the defiant Capriles pointed out in demanding a recount, we Venezuelans are staring fascism in the face.
Where do we go from here? The prospects for a legal battle are not encouraging. The CNE in its current form is a lost cause. Our Supreme Court, once a bastion of judicial independence, is now packed with the same chavista judges who gladly enabled Maduro to become acting president after Chávez died, in violation of the constitution. Our defense minister, Admiral Diego Molero, months ago pledged that the armed forces would support the continuation of chavismo, in another grotesque violation of constitutional provisions that prevent the involvement of the military in politics.
Indeed, the ultimate brokers in this situation are not Venezuelans, but Cubans. It is no accident that the first foreign leader to congratulate Maduro on his victory was the Cuban President Raúl Castro (closely followed by that other paragon of democracy, the Russian President Vladimir Putin.) Maduro, a former foreign minister, has close ties with Cuban intelligence and spent much of the last few months of Chávez’s illness in Havana, where the late comandante was receiving medical treatment. Out of all the prominent individuals in the ruling Socialist Party, described by one commentator as a “nest of scorpions,” it was Maduro who was favored by the Cubans for his loyalty and reliability.
What we are looking at, then, is an ugly political battle. Many of the 3,200 irregularities compiled by the opposition on election day involved violence and intimidation against voters. Maduro also exercises an iron grip over the state media and is determined to silence the last remaining voices of criticism, such as the Globovision television station.
But make no mistake: Even at the height of his cancer, Chávez was never as weak as Maduro is now. Even within his own party, the knives are out. Maduro’s main rival, the powerful National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, has already spoken of his displeasure at the way the election outcome is being handled. Over the next few days, chavismo is likely to fragment into at least two camps: the first is pro-Maduro, which is orthodoxy socialist and devoted to the Cuban regime, while the other, which contains leaders like Cabello, is more nationalist in orientation and frustrated with the regime’s ongoing subservience to Havana.
Mindful of the violence that accompanied the 2002 attempted coup against Chávez, the opposition is seeking a peaceful path. In that sense, it is vital that the world’s democracies, among them the United States, the European Union and the members of the Organization of American States (OAS,) join our call for a recount. They should also refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s victory until we have a result that is beyond dispute.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of all this is the state of Venezuela itself. Our economy is collapsing, food shortages are growing and the guardian of our most precious resource, the state-owned PDVSA oil company, has been wrecked by more than a decade of chavista misrule. We desperately need a transparent, responsible government to address the crisis. Sadly, like so many of the revolutionary movements throughout history, the chavistas believe that crisis is opportunity.
Antonio Herrera-Vaillant is a spokesman for freevenezuela.org, an online campaign working for freedom and democracy in Venezuela.