Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters at a campaign rally, April 6, 2013.
On April 14, Venezuelans went to the polls and elected Hugo Chávez’s former foreign minister and vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, president. It was a close race, closer than many thought it would be. The man he beat was Henrique Capriles Radonski, Chávez’s unsuccessful challenger in last October’s presidential election.
When Chávez died in early March, Capriles had been in Manhattan, where his family owns a number of apartments on the Upper East Side. He quickly flew back to Caracas to announce that he would run again for president in the special election to replace Chávez. Few observers, even among his supporters, thought Capriles, who had just lost to Chávez by more than ten points, had a chance. But he mounted a strong, energetic campaign and came within less than two points of beating Maduro. This election’s turnout was just below October’s contest, which means that Capriles better showing came mostly from former Chávez voters who this time cast their ballot for him.
There are many interesting things to be said about this election, one being that it really wasn’t a fight over ideology. Maduro, who had been directly named by Chávez as his preferred replacement, ran as the Chavista candidate. But in a way so did Capriles, who pledged to be a better administrator of the society Chávez left behind.
Already during his previous campaign, Capriles drew sharp criticism from Venezuela’s oligarch irreconcilables for basically running as a third-world socialist. He repeatedly compared himself to Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, saying that he would keep in place all of Chávez’s social missions, which deliver health care, education, housing, childcare and other services to the urban and rural poor. Capriles, who in 2002 supported the failed US-backed coup against Chávez, even announced that he was a “Bolivarian,” an act that just a few years earlier would have been as unthinkable as Dick Cheney declaring himself a member of Code Pink.
During this election, Capriles went even further. He named his campaign team after Simón Bolívar and said he would not only defend the misiones but create new ones. He promised to dramatically increase salaries and pensions and began to work phrases associated with Chávez into his speeches, even copying symbols of the Bolivarian Revolution into his campaign paraphernalia. In other words, the close results of the election can’t be interpreted as a rejection of Chavismo, since Capriles ran promising to consolidate the gains of Chavismo, saying that he, and not Maduro, was be a better executor of Chávez’s legacy.