Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

On Sunday, April 14, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect a successor to long-time President Huge Chavez, who died on March 5 of this year after a long battle with cancer. Chavez’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who had been serving as acting president since Chavez’s death, narrowly won the election over Governor Henrique Capriles of Miranda.

Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor who has pledged to continue the Chavista revolution, captured 50.8 percent of the popular vote while Capriles, a young popular center-right governor, captured 49 percent. This difference of 275,000 votes out of 15 million cast between the two candidates was surprisingly small. Many observers had expected Maduro to ride the catharsis of Chavez’s death easily to victory, especially since Chavez himself had defeated Capriles handily in the October 2012 election.

Soon after the narrow Maduro victory was announced, protestors from the opposition took to the streets. Capriles called for a complete recount of the ballots cast, claiming irregularities such as problematic machines and questionable voter rolls. Supporters of Capriles banged on pots and pans as they marched through the streets while supporters of Maduro set off fireworks in celebration.

Some opposition protestors clashed with police earlier in the week. Unrest from the protests have killed eight and injured dozens. Each side is blaming the other for the violence. Capriles cancelled a protest march last Wednesday, asking supporters not to play into “the government’s game.” Meanwhile, Maduro said that “fascist” Capriles was “responsible for the dead we are mourning.” Maduro also blamed the U.S. State Department for organizing and financing the post-election ruckus. The State Department, after the close vote, echoed Capriles’s call for a full recount and said it would not recognize the results until after the recount was complete.

The National Electoral Council agreed last Thursday to a full audit of the ballots cast. They will inspect all voting machines and cross-reference the electronic ballots with paper registration rolls. While this falls short of the recount demanded by Capriles, the opposition is hoping the voting fraud that they are convinced took place can be discovered through the auditing process, which could take up to a month.

Despite the start of the audit, Maduro was inaugurated as president last Friday at the National Assembly Building. Several foreign governments sent representatives to the ceremony. Those present included President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Raul Castro of Cuba and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran.

“I call the country to a revolution of socialist efficiency, to fight red tape, corruption, laziness, to fight backwardness, the culture of lethargy,” Maduro said in his inaugural address. “We’ll turn these six years into a miracle of economic prosperity. […] We will guarantee peace in this country.”

Maduro’s speech was interrupted by a man in the crowd who rushed the stage and pushed the new president away from the microphone. Security officials quickly tackled the man before he was able to shout anything of substance into the microphone.

Regardless of what the audit yields, Maduro’s thin victory shows that Chavez’s popularity has not automatically transferred to his successor. Besides stiff political opposition, Maduro is facing a myriad of challenges. The Venezuelan economy is forecasted to shrink this year. The government is perceived as corrupt. The inflation rate is now at 27 percent.