BOGOTA -- A day after lawmakers had a bloody brawl, President Nicolás Maduro and rival Henrique Capriles led rallies focused on last month’s election.
Government supporters and opposition groups in Venezuela held dueling May Day marches Wednesday amid growing tensions over last month’s contested presidential election and one day after the legislature devolved into a bloody, chair-throwing brawl.
The rallies were, ostensibly, to celebrate international workers day, and counted on the support of rival unions and labor organizations. But they were also a show of political strength in a nation still at odds over the April 14 presidential vote.
President Nicolás Maduro and rival Henrique Capriles spearheaded the marches but tried to avoid confrontation by routing their supporters through different parts of Caracas.
In his ongoing battle to prove that the election was plagued by fraud, Capriles, 40, the governor of Miranda state, told throngs of supporters he would be handing over evidence of irregularities to the Supreme Court on Thursday.
“We will make our case to every institution even though we don’t trust the state,” he said. “In any moment this [government] will fall, but its exit has to be constitutional. … This is a peaceful fight to defeat their lies.”
On the other side of town, Maduro called Capriles a sore loser.
“You were defeated, accept your defeat,” he said. “You’re a crying bourgeois and a fascist who wants to take the country down the path of hatred and violence.”
Venezuela’s election authority, says Maduro — Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor — won the race by 224,730 votes or 1.49 percentage points. But Capriles says there were enough irregularities, including ballots cast by the deceased, to change the outcome. International organizations invited to monitor the race have been split on the issue.
In response to the fraud allegations, the National Electoral Council, or CNE, began auditing voting machines on Monday, but the opposition is boycotting the process, saying the review doesn’t go deep enough and won’t uncover the flaws in the system.
Maduro had initially agreed to a complete recount, but then backtracked. And CNE President Tibisay Lucena has said that reviewing the physical ballots is not a legal option. Instead, the audit is centered on the electronic voting machines themselves, and Lucena has said the process will not change the outcome of the race.
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday said it was awaiting the audit results but acknowledged it views Maduro as the country’s leader. Pressed by reporters, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell stopped short of saying the U.S. government “recognized” Maduro — as the Venezuelan leader has been asking.
It’s not for the U.S. government to put “a stamp of approval one way or another on [Venezuela’s] electoral process,” Ventrell said. “It is for us to work with the government that’s in place on mutual interests of concern.”
The opposition’s refusal to accept the results has led to growing tensions. The National Assembly, which is controlled by the ruling party, has not let opposition lawmakers speak until they recognize Maduro.
Tuesday night, when the minority lawmakers were muted once again, they unfurled a banner reading “Parliamentary Coup” and began blasting foghorns. Fists and chairs began flying — forcing one deputy to put on a motorcycle helmet — and at least 11 lawmakers were injured in the melee.
Opposition Deputy Julio Borges went on TV with blood streaming down his face and a swollen eye. It was the third time he has been physically attacked on the floor. His colleague, María Corina Machado, said she was knocked to the ground and kicked by a ruling-party deputy. She attended Wednesday’s march with a neck brace and bruises.
Maduro condemned the violence Wednesday but said the opposition had instigated it when they went to the assembly with a “paralyzer,” an apparatus that he said emitted a “gas that they were intending to throw on the deputies’ faces.”
He said the government would release videos of the altercation that proved Borges was one of the aggressors.
On Wednesday, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma accused Maduro of using the legislature and the courts to install a “neo-dictatorship.”
“The parliament is the heart of a democracy,” he told Globovisión during Wednesday’s march. “If you rip the heart out of a person they cease to exist. If you break the back of the parliament you are giving the democratic system a death blow.”
At the opposition march, which was concentrated in the more affluent eastern side of the capital, many waved placards of Antonio Rivero, a former general and member of the Voluntad Popular party, who was jailed Saturday. The government is accusing the one-time Chávez ally of inciting violence that led to at least eight deaths after the election. His supporters say he was framed on flimsy evidence as part of a government witch-hunt to silence critics.
On the other side of the city, red-clad supporters of Maduro clogged the streets, many waving banners of Chávez, the socialist firebrand who often used May Day to celebrate his “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Emmanuel Dorfey, a 47-year-old visual artist, said the opposition was trying to provoke chaos after losing at the polls.
“They’re just cheats, refusing to recognize they lost. … They and the imperialists want violence to stop the revolution,” he said. “But they will never steal this election from us. The people won’t allow it.”
Miami Herald Special Correspondent Andrew Rosati contributed to this report from Caracas.