Truman National Security Project

Venezuelan Election 101: Life After Chavez

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On April 14, 2013, Venezuela held a special election after the death of former president Hugo Chavez. The election gained international attention for its narrow results and for claims of voting irregularities and subsequent demands for an audit from the defeated party.  Further, human rights groups voiced objections that the Chavista Government intimidated voters and fired employees for voting for the opposition. The government originally refused to conduct an audit, but announced an election audit due to public pressure. This is particularly important for the candidates, their political parties, and the country’s nearly 30 million people. Already there have been deaths, protests and brawls in their National Assembly after the election and the signs are pointing toward more turmoil to come.

Read on for an explanation of the major players and events that are shaping up this incident.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION IN VENEZUELA?

President Hugo Chavez defeated Henrique Capriles, the governor of the prosperous state of Miranda, on October 7, 2012 for his fourth term. However, Chavez won by his slimmest margin ever, taking 54% of the vote. On December 8, 2012, Chavez announced that he was heading to Cuba to receive a third medical treatment for cancer, a condition he was diagnosed with in 2011. In his announcement to the Venezuelan people, Chavez implored them to sustain the socialist revolution and to elect his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, if he died.

Chavez was to be sworn in on January 10, but due to his medical condition, he was unable to attend the ceremony. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, if a president cannot be inaugurated on January 10, another election is required within thirty days. However, the Chavista-supporting Supreme Court ruled that this was not an inauguration for a new president and, therefore, the inauguration should merely be postponed. Chavez eventually returned to Venezuela in February. However, he died on March 5 from a heart attack before he could be inaugurated, which under the Constitution, should have placed the leader of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, as the interim president for the thirty days before the special election.

However, Chavez’s heir apparent and Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, took over as interim President. It is suspected that Maduro assumed the position since a vice president of the previous administration is constitutionally constrained from a run for the presidency. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) soon after selected Maduro as their candidate for the election. The Democratic Unity Roundtable, a collection of parties that had united in the hopes of defeating Chavez, nominated Henrique Capriles again as their candidate.

After a bitter thirty-day campaign that involved juvenile name-calling and slanderous accusations, the election took place on April 14. Maduro was expected to win by a double-digit point total, just as Chavez had done six months earlier; however, he scraped by with less than two points. Due to this slim margin, Capriles said he would not accept the result until there was a full audit of the election and a recount. Maduro has wavered on the issue of an audit, originally claiming that he would accept one but later refusing to comply. The National Electoral Council has stated that the results of the election are “irreversible” and has proclaimed Maduro as president.

The election results have sparked demonstrations by both sides. Chavistas lit off fireworks and blasted their car horns in celebration of Maduro, while the opposition banged pots and pans and gathered in Altamira Square in protest. There have been at least seven deaths and over fifty injuries due to post-election demonstrations, with both sides pointing fingers at the other. A recent brawl between National Assembly members broke out when opposition members denounced a legislative rule that would strip the power of any assemblyperson that did not recognize Maduro as President.

In the midst of this turmoil, the Maduro government made a final reversal, announcing that they would submit to an audit of the election. This compliance followed a regional meeting of presidents from South America condemned the behavior of Maduro and the National Electoral Council.

HOW DID THIS CRISIS DEVELOP?

The recent violence might have been sparked by the election; however, the real root of the cause comes from a deep and growing political divide within the nation. Venezuela has many social and economic issues divide the nation into two camps, Chavistas and non-Chavistas.

During Chavez’s reign as president, Venezuelan poverty has dramatically fallen. Chavez poured in hundreds of billions of dollars into social services over his presidency, which is what made him a hero to the lower class, but put his nation in dire straits. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest inflation rates, frequent blackouts, food shortages, and crippling violence. During the campaign, Capriles publicized all of the infrastructure projects that Chavez promised but failed to complete.

The conflict between the two sides is similar to Cold War European divides. On one side, there are the Socialist Chavistas who want to nationalize industries and funnel state and local money into large communes and social spending. On foreign issues, Chavistas want to support other socialist nations in Latin America and have aligned themselves with Russia, China and Iran. Under Chavez rule, Cuba received large quantities of discounted oil from Venezuela daily. On the other hand, the opposition believes in privatizing the economy more and in giving more power to local and state government. Internationally, it supports an end to the oil subsidies given to Cuba and a de-escalation of aggressive claims against the US.

WHO ARE THE MAJOR PLAYERS IN THIS ELECTION AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?

There are three people that act as major power brokers in this situation. The first two are the candidates themselves, Maduro and Capriles, the faces of their respective parties.  Equally as important is the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.

Henrique Capriles is the candidate for the opposition party of Venezuela.  Currently, he serves as the Governor of the state of Miranda, the second most populous state of Venezuela which also boasts the highest Human Development Index ranking of the country. Capriles was imprisoned in 2004 by the government after protesting outside of the Cuban embassy. These protests were high-profile, eventually contributing to the brief exile of Chavez. After his narrow defeat in this election, Capriles has refused to accept the results until there is a full audit of the election.

Nicolas Maduro is the current president of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’s selected successor. Since 2006, Maduro has been a part of Chavez’s cabinet, first as the minister of Foreign Affairs and then as Chavez’s vice-president. Before getting into politics, Maduro was a bus driver and worked for the rights of metro workers. At first Maduro said he would allow an audit of the election, but quickly reneged on his promise. After mounting pressure he has relented and says he will allow an audit.

Diosdado Cabello is the current president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Venezuela’s parliament. He served in the military with Chavez and still is influential in that sphere. He currently holds the highest position within the United Socialist Party after Chavez’s death. Cabello is seen as the main rival of Maduro within the Socialist Party and his tweet after the narrow election, “The results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism,” only fuels the speculation. Cabello has claimed that the opposition had planned not to accept any election results to get international attention. He also claimed he would not recognize the presidency of a candidate from the opposition party. He also will not allow any member of the National Assembly to go on the floor until they recognize Maduro as President.  This decree was the driving force of an April 30 brawl in the National Assembly that left many assemblymen injured.

WHY SHOULD THE U.S. CARE?

For most of the 20thcentury, Venezuela had strong relations with the U.S., with Venezuela selling oil to the U.S. at a favorable price. That relationship started to deteriorate immediately after Chavez was elected president in 1999. Chavez mandated that the state-run oil company raise the royalties on foreign companies, souring economic relationships between the two nations. Chavez then made it a point to try and antagonize the U.S. at every turn. Further, his friendship with Fidel Castro spoiled the United States’ plan to isolate Cuba. Chavez also had a strong relationship with Iran and condemned the killing of Osama Bin Laden. He constantly made pejorative statements against American politicians, frequently referring to former President George W. Bush as “the devil”. In an interview after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama acknowledged the hostility of the Venezuelan government, naming Chavez “a force that has interrupted progress in the region.”

Maduro served as Chavez’s foreign minister and was an influential figure in Chavez’s foreign policy.  In this role, he was instrumental in strengthening relations with Russia and China, both of which were big financiers of the Chavez government. Further, Maduro plans to continue giving Cuba discounted oil, openly declaring Raul Castro a close ally of his country. He has continued Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric and even suggested that the U.S. was behind the violence that happened after the election results were announced. So, it would seem that if Maduro were to remain president, it would remain status quo for Venezuelan-U.S. relations.

Capriles, on the other hand, has stated that he would support a dramatically different foreign policy than that of the PSUV government. He claimed that he would review all of Venezuela’s alliances and make adjustments to them on a case-by-case situation. Perhaps most significantly, Capriles has promised to stop giving oil aid to Cuba if elected, which would dramatically impact the Cuban economy. Also, Capriles mocked Chavistas for attacking the U.S. while still selling oil to them, implying that he would have a less confrontational relationship with the U.S.

The man who eventually emerges as president of Venezuela will have a major impact on U.S. foreign relations in Latin America. Venezuela has been a thorn in U.S. relations in the region and has been a major supporter of rival nations to the U.S. like Iran, Russia, China and Cuba.  We do not fully know what either candidate would do if they become president; we can only speculate based on their promises. Maduro would continue to hinder U.S.’ goals in the region, while Capriles could be a turning point for the U.S.’ relationship with the country that holds the world’s largest oil supply.

CONCLUSIONS

With the audit of the election on its way, there are several possible outcomes.

If the audit confirms that Maduro won the election and the opposition forces relent and accept the result, there would be an end to the political unrest for a period of time and Venezuela would be at status quo with regards to its domestic and foreign policy. Furthermore, if Maduro is declared the winner and the opposition does not accept the results, they could stir up their base and the protests continue.  These protests could get more aggressive, causing more civilian deaths.

If the audit overturns the original results and announces Capriles as the new president, the PSUV and its leaders would most likely not accept the result. Cabello has already stated that he would not accept having an opposition party member become president. This could lead to a legislative fight led by the Chavistas in National Assembly and the Supreme Court to dispose of Capriles. Major civil unrest could erupt, with Capriles struggling to uphold faltering democratic procedures. On the other hand, if the Chavistas were to accept the democratic process and let Capriles become president, relative stability could ensue, and relations between the U.S. and Venezuela could actually improve.

Despite the heavy political interest for the U.S. in terms of their relationship with Venezuela, it would be best for the U.S. to not get heavily involved into the election.  US election observers should build credibility for the audit and to accept the results and hope: hope that the new president will improve Venezuela’s relations with the U.S. and that the defeated candidate will accept the result and call for an end to civil discord.

The only thing for certain is the future of this major regional player implicates the United States, South America, and much of the world.

David Breazzano is a member of Operation Free.