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.
Had he won, Capriles undoubtedly would have quickly reverted to his earlier coup-supporting incarnation and began the dismantling—or at least try to. But the genie let loose by the Bolivarian Revolution won’t be easily put back in the bottle. Over the course of the last fourteen years, Chávez presided over both a radical expansion of the public debate—including redefining democracy to mean social democracy—and a radical expansion of who has access to that debate. He helped set in motion a process by which millions of people who had been formally excluded from political decision-making today think of themselves as protagonists, including thousands, perhaps upward of a million, of Colombian migrants, many of them domestic workers and laborers, who were brought out of the shadows by an immigration reform that the US would do well to imitate. That Capriles’ only ticket into Venezuela’s political arena was to accept this new reality suggests that, whatever the future may hold, the winner of last week’s election was Chávez himself.
More than this, the fact that so many Venezuelans seemingly made a conscious, considered decision to switch their votes confirms what supporters of Venezuelan democracy have been saying for years: people voted for Chávez because they wanted to vote for Chávez, not because they were gulled, duped, bribed or intimidated into doing so.
That said, what happened? Maduro was expected to win handily, by about the same percentage Chávez did in October. There aren’t reliable exit polls that might provide a sense of voter motivation, but, as I have written earlier in The Nation, Chávez’s electoral support largely fell into two broad constituencies. The first included Venezuelans involved in social movements—the vibrant organizations George Ciccariello-Maher writes about in his terrific new book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution—whose activism makes Venezuela one of the most democratic countries in the world. The second was made up of unorganized voters, many from the middle class, who didn’t necessarily think they were building twenty-first century socialism but believed, all things considered, that their lives were better as a result of Chávez’s redistributive policies. My guess is that it is this second group, concerned with crime, violence and corruption that, unimpressed with Maduro, swung to Capriles.
The election was undoubtedly a wake-up call for Chavismo. Maduro, a former bus driver and a union leader with a more organic relationship with the social movements than any of the other politicians who could have been tapped as Chávez’s successor, should take the nail-biter as an warning that while many Venezuelans want a more just society, they also want their garbage picked up, their streets safe, their electricity steadily delivered and, in general, more efficient and less corrupt government.
Here’s the thing though: coming so close to winning has had a dangerously regressive effect on the opposition. It took the Venezuelan oligarchy and old political elites about seven years to finally, grudgingly accept the legitimacy of Hugo Chávez, and only after they nearly destroyed the country with paralyzing strikes, coup plots and other actions meant to destabilize and disrupt.
But now the opposition, giddy by its unexpectedly strong performance, sensing weakness on the part of Maduro, and believing the restoration of their class and race privilege is in sight, is once again hurtling toward the precipice. Capriles is refusing to accept the results of the election, and hence Maduro’s legitimacy, giving a confrontational speech demanding a full recount and calling for street protests. Anything could happen, but, considering the integrity of Venezuela’s voting system, a recount will most likely confirm Maduro’s win. A 250,000 plus vote margin is hard to overcome.
In other words, we might be starting from day one, witnessing the beginning of a whole new cycle of polarization, in which the opposition returns to its maximalist program of antagonism. It’s too early to say how bad things will get, but already there are reports that on the Monday night after Capriles’ speech, his rampaging supporters left four Chavistas dead (you would never know it from reading Human Rights Watch’s coverage, but the primary victims of political violence in Venezuela over the last fourteen years have in fact been supporters of Chávez, including peasants trying to make good on land reform).
In turn, Maduro, denied the time and stability to work on pressing matters of public administration, will be forced to respond, to take measures to try to once again socialize the oligarchy, its political agents and representatives in the media, measures which (however mild compared to, say, that catastrophe unfolding in Colombia or Honduras) will be denounced by Washington and its adjuncts like Human Rights Watch and the mainstream media.
In the past, Chávez’s charisma, his light touch despite his often rhetorical bombast, his ability to bring some key opponents back into the fold, to make unexpected alliances, helped defuse social tension at key moments. It’s one of the reasons why Venezuela, despite an often excess of extreme rhetoric, didn’t spiral into the kind of violence often associated with other revolutions. Let’s hope Maduro can develop similar skills to set the agenda and not be provoked by the opposition’s provocations.
Stepping back from Venezuela, what we are witnessing in Latin America is that the remarkable experiment in social democracy, the beginning of which can be dated to Chávez’s election in 1998, is outliving its first generation of leaders. Before Chávez died last month, Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner had passed away in 2010. In Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who too was afflicted with a threatening cancer but has recovered, announced he would not run for president in the future. Latin America’s New Left is entering its next, more challenging stage, and once again it seems that Venezuela is in the vanguard.
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