But a weakened successor gives some hope for the future of Venezuela.
Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor, won the presidential election in Venezuela to serve out the remainder of the deceased leader's last six-year presidential term. The margin of victory was surprisingly thin. Maduro received 50.7 percent of the vote in Sunday's election, versus 49.1 percent for Henrique Capriles, a state governor who offered a strong challenge to Chavez last October. Capriles has challenged the results, rejecting the outcome as "illegitimate," and claiming that more than 3,000 incidents occurring at the polls need to be investigated. Maduro insisted otherwise. “We have a just, legal, constitutional and popular electoral victory,” he said, further contending that his victory demonstrates Hugo Chavez "continues to be invincible, that he continues to win battles.''
Tibisay Lucena, the head of the National Electoral Council echoed Maduro's contentions. “These are the irreversible results that the Venezuelan people have decided with this electoral process,” she said during her announcement of the vote totals on national television late Sunday. Yet Capriles remained defiant. "We are not going to recognize a result until each vote of Venezuelans is counted," he warned. "This struggle has not ended." Maduro was apparently willing to allow a recount to proceed. "Let 100 percent of the ballot boxes be opened...We're going to do it; we have no fear," he promised.
A recount is certainly possible. The nation's voting system is completely digital, and each vote generates a paper receipt as well. Yet it remains to be seen if the National Electoral Council will allow a recount to take place. One Council official, who disfavors the current government, called on authorities to conduct a recount by hand. Yet other officials contend the election went smoothly, and that there was no evidence of irregularities in a process overseen by nearly 200 international observers. In spite of the ill will, both candidates urged their followers to remain peaceful.
After maintaining a double-digit lead in polls taken as recently as two weeks ago, Maduro squeaked by with a margin of just 234,935 votes out of 14.8 million cast. Turnout was heavy at 78 percent. Analysts have characterized the margin of victory for Maduro as a disaster, given that he was the standard-bearer for Chavez and his so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Chavez himself defeated Capriles by a margin of 11 points in the October election, and in his last presidential address to the nation before his death in March, he urged his followers to cast their ballots for Maduro if he failed to recover from his bout with cancer.
Maduro's slim margin of victory was not lost on National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. "The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism," tweeted the man considered to be Maduro's main rival inside their United Socialist Party (PSUV). “It's contradictory that some among the poor vote for those who always exploit them," he later added. "Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander (Chavez) in danger."
Many Chavistas, used to the comfortable margins that carried Hugo Chavez to his victories, were also shocked by Maduro's narrow win. "On one hand, we're happy, but the result is not exactly what we had expected," said computer technician Gregory Belfort. "It means there are a lot of people out there who support Chavez but didn't vote for Maduro, which is valid."
American political scientist Javier Corrales, an expert in Venezuelan affairs at Amherst College in Massachusetts, was much less optimistic. "This is the most delicate moment in the history of 'Chavismo' since 2002," he warned. "With these results, the opposition might not concede easily, and Maduro will have a hard time demonstrating to the top leadership of Chavismo that he is a formidable leader." The election results may also generate resistance among the current ruling alliance, consisting of military officers, oil company executives and armed barrio leaders, whose uneasy coalition had been largely held together by the force of Chavez's dynamic personality and his vise-like control of government. Even supporters concede that Maduro lacks Chavez's political instincts and charisma, raising many questions about the future of the nation.
It is a nation beset by monumental problems. Despite a spending binge initiated by Chavez prior to his 2012 victory, powering a 5.6 percent economic growth rate, many economists expect that number to tumble to less than 2 percent in 2013. Inflation remains at 20 percent, and Venezuelans face chronic power outages, deteriorating infrastructure, and ongoing shortages of food staples, medicine and other supplies.
In addition, the nation has a $30 billion fiscal deficit, equal to about 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Many factories are operating well below capacity because strict currency controls imposed by Chavez--to prevent the capital flight that occurred when he initiated a government confiscation of numerous businesses and properties--make it hard for them to pay for supplies. Business leaders further contend the inability to extend credit lines with foreign suppliers has put many companies on the verge of bankruptcy. Venezuela also remains one of the most dangerous nations in the world, with sky-high murder and kidnapping rates.
Capriles' election campaign centered on such government incompetence. During rallies, he read lists of government projects that remained unfinished and asked people what products remained in short supply. Maduro attempted to blame all of Venezuela's problems on sabotage by the far right, and outside forces engaged in a "dirty war" against him. "There is an international operation to attack Venezuelan democracy," he claimed. "I will show no weakness against those who meddle with this country's sovereignty." Maduros also promised his countrymen that he would maintain Chavez's legacy of socialism, continuing to shower the nation's poor with government largesse, even as the long-term effects of such spending have yet to be realized.
They may be realized soon. Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), one of the nation's chief sources of revenue, has seen its output decline by almost half since 2000, and Capriles supporters contend Chavez plundered much of the $1 trillion it amassed during his 14 year rule. In March, PDVSA reported a 3 percent decline in annual sales and a 40 percent increase in debt to service providers. Furthermore, without massive loans from China, totaling at least $40 billion from 2008 to 2012, PDVSA would likely be insolvent. Complicating matters even further, the bolivar, Venezuela's currency, is currently selling at one-third the official exchange rate relative to the U.S. dollar, despite two devaluations initiated by Maduro this year.
Yet Maduro remains undeterred by the reality that his nation is running out of other people's money to spend. He vowed to expand Chavez's "21st Century" socialist model even further, promising to raise the minimum wage by 30-40 percent, and maintain ties with Cuba, another economic basket case that receives oil donations from Venezuela to prop up its own failing economy. Thus, it was no surprise that Maduro was congratulated on his victory by Cuban leader Raul Castro. He was also congratulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose nation has big oil investments in Venezuela.
As for the people themselves, the prevailing sentiment from Maduro supporters was best expressed by Reynaldo Ramos, a 60-year-old construction worker, and Maria Velasquez, 48, who works in a soup kitchen outside Caracas. Ramos said he "voted for Chavez" before correcting himself. "We must always vote for Chavez because he always does what's best for the people and we're going to continue on this path," he said. Velasquez was even more direct. She voted for Chavez's protege "because that is what my comandante ordered."
Maduro's relationship with the United States remains a question mark. During the campaign he mimicked his predecessors's contempt, accusing American diplomats of trying to kill him, blaming America for causing Chavez's cancer, and undermining relations between the two nations. Yet former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, in Caracas as a representative of the Organization of American States (OAS), claimed Maduro wants to alter the equation. “He said, ‘We want to improve the relationship with the U.S., regularize the relationship,’” Richardson revealed.
Maduro is scheduled to be sworn in April 19, serving until January 2019 to complete the six-year term that Chavez began in January. On Sunday, his supporters took to the streets in celebration, even as Capriles' supporters remained in shocked disbelief that their man had lost. Capriles himself expressed their sentiment. "The biggest loser today is you," he said, directly addressing Maduro on camera. "The people don't love you."
Considering the economic calamity that Venezuelans' love for Hugo Chavez has given them, that's a good thing.
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