It was as close an election as one might expect in Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro, his predecessor’s hand-picked candidate, edged out the popular Henrique Capriles, definitely no friend of the late Simon Bolivar wannabe, Hugo Chavez. No one questioned the strong voter turnout that produced 14.9 million ballots cast, but the published mere 267,000 vote margin of victory by Maduro certainly has aroused passion — not that anyone is surprised at passion in Venezuelan politics.
The late Hugo Chavez would have loved the large international presss coverage, which included strong representation from all those countries around the world that have benefited economically and politically from the Chavez years. As one British wag put it, “I never knew so many Persians could speak Spanish.” The Caracas crowds entertained the visiting media with post-election protests by the Capriles stalwarts, who stormed through the main streets banging pots and shouting slogans. The Maduro crowds used fireworks as an effective counter to the other side’s singing and shouting. It was quite a “party”; seven people reportedly died from the violence and dozens were injured.
Initially the Capriles team demanded a recount but changed their mind and are now planning a full-scale legal challenge in court. An American documentary filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, was arrested and charged with paying right-wing youth groups to stage post-election riots. This was a surprise because Tracy had succeeded in becoming very friendly with pro-Chavez student and youth group members before the election in order to get their point of view.
Nicolas Maduro apparently finally has quieted down after the initial rants at what he characterized as “U.S. intelligence intervention” He suggested in impromptu radio and television appearances that Capriles’ supporters did not want a democracy but rather a Nazi-like civil war. He referred to this opposition to him and the election as “fascistic” and stated, “I will use a hard hand against fascism.”
At this point Venezuela is living day-to-day in fear of a full scale crackdown on any demonstration the Maduro government chooses to characterize as dissidence. So far there has been no particular movement by the military to participate, though the promise to “keep within the barracks” can fall apart at any time, depending on which side wants to take a chance on unleashing this always available “third force.”
There has been a formal pledge of allegiance by some of the principal unit commanders to their new commander-in-chief. This was touted as an indication that the Army will be loyal to the new government of Maduro. The matter, though, is more complicated than that. The Army controls the economy through its administration of all petroleum port facilities, and that is not about to change even as competition grows for leverage within the new civilian government. The balance of political power is ultimately in the hands of the armed forces. More particularly there are others within the old Chavista group with the strong military credentials that Nicolas Maduro lacks.
Maduro will have to look out for the political allies of Diosado Cabello, the man who for two years was a jailmate of Hugo Chavez after an original failed military coup. Later when Chavez did succeed in becoming president, Cabello became his chief of staff and eventually vice president. There are others within the Chavista movement who have power on their own. General Henry Rangel Silva, who had been named in the foreign press as a principal contact in the drug trade with the Colombian guerrilla group FARC, remains a prominent figure. He is a former defense minister and just last year ran successfully for the governorship of Trujillo state. Maduro considers Rangel as safely ensconced in his governorship, but he is one of many ready to jump in if the old Chavista system appears to be breaking down.
Meanwhile Henrique Capriles was barely defeated in an election for president that supposedly was going to be an easy win for Chavez’s personally designated heir. Young and vigorous, Capriles clearly intends to keep the battle alive for Venezuela’s future. President Maduro, in turn, has done everything he can to continue the special arrangement with Cuba that Hugo Chavez created with the Castro brothers. Among other technical assistance programs, this has included the provision of thousands of Cuban clinics, medical personnel and doctors offering health care to Venezuela’s poor, urban and rural. Cuba has been well compensated for its help by Caracas, which has supplied free, or at substantially reduced prices, all the Havana government’s petroleum needs. That has been a multi-billion dollar deal for Cuba and an essential social service for Venezuela.
If Maduro is replaced, no matter how it occurs, the existing social and technical assistance relationship with Cuba will have to be either maintained or replaced. Capriles knows this in spite of his pre-election claims that he would bring an end “to all subsidized activities.” The many phases of Cuban involvement in Venezuela are so extensive they would be very difficult to replace — and Washington knows this full well as well. What it would or could do about it is another issue.