One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela’s rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro’s vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.
In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be “irreversible.”
One of the celebrities given star billing at a Nicolas Maduro election rally last week in Caracas was Diego Maradona, the former Argentine soccer star. Maradona scored perhaps the most notorious goal in the history of the game during the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, when, during a match against England, he tipped the ball into the net with the outside of his fist (an unlawful play). The referee looked the other way and the goal stood. Maradona later ascribed his good fortune to divine intervention: it was the “hand of God,” he said, that was responsible for his goal.
Much the same metaphor can be applied to Maduro’s paper-thin victory in yesterday’s presidential election. When Venezuelans went to the polls last October, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez won by 11 points, a margin comfortable enough to prevent his opponent, Henrique Capriles, from challenging the result. But last night, it was a very different story; according to the official returns, Maduro won 50.66 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent for Capriles. In a normal democracy, a result as close as this one would automatically trigger a recount. Venezuela, however, is not a normal democracy, and its chavista-controlled National Electoral Council, or CNE, has already declared the outcome to be “irreversible,” despite angry demands from the opposition MUD coalition for a proper audit of the votes.
With a little under a month to go before Venezuela’s presidential election on April 14, the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, is starting to exhibit the boldness that many wished he’d displayed when he challenged the now deceased Hugo Chavez last October.
Addressing a college rally earlier today, Capriles declared that in the event of his victory, the long-standing Chavista commitment to provide subsidized oil to Cuba would end. “Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros,” he told the crowd.
It’s hard to overstate the consequences of such a move. Assisting the Cuban Communists to maintain their grip on power was the most cherished foreign policy imperative of the Chavez years; abruptly removing the Cuban oil crutch would deal a death blow to one of the foundations of chavismo. For the Cubans, meanwhile, the prospect of a future without subsidized Venezuelan oil conjures up memories of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
At Chavista demonstrations in Caracas recently, images of Hugo Chavez juxtaposed with icons of Jesus Christ have been a common sight. In part, that’s because Venezuelans are a devoutly Catholic people, and Chavez’s health has been the subject of many prayers. But there is also a sinister messianism around Chavez, which his cohorts, none of whom remotely enjoy the same level of popularity as he does, have eagerly stoked.
Today, then, amounts to a resurrection of sorts. More than two months after disappearing from view, following his return to Havana to seek medical treatment for cancer, the Cuban regime released photos of Chavez lying in his hospital bed, flanked by his two smiling daughters, Rosa and Maria.
Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.
Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.
Over the last week, indications have emerged from Venezuela that the fourteen year rule of President Hugo Chavez may be coming to an end this Sunday, when voters will choose between El Comandante and his dynamic opposition rival, Henrique Capriles. There are the polls from local companies like Datanalisis and Consultores 21 which show that Capriles has slashed Chavez’s lead, and may even be edging ahead. There is the large pool of “undecided” voters—anywhere between 10 and 20 percent—who will probably vote for Capriles, but are too afraid to let a pollster know. And there was the opposition rally in Caracas yesterday which drew tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, all chanting “You See It! You Feel It! President Capriles!”
Perhaps the most striking suggestion that change is in the air came from a group of Cuban doctors who were sent to Venezuela under the Misión Barrio Adentro, a Chavez-financed social welfare program whose core purpose is to lock up the votes of poorer Venezuelans for the current regime. Back in 2006, the George W. Bush administration, having registered the large number of Cuban medical personnel working on such solidarity missions in countries like Venezuela, created the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to assist those wishing to defect. Now, the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal reports (English translation here) that the Cubans are deserting their posts at a rate of 80 per month, in large part because they anticipate a Capriles victory in Sunday’s election.