Venezuela’s Election: Even if Nicolás Maduro Won, He Lost

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Ramon Espinosa / AP

Chavistas and government supporters, one of whom holding a portrait of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, wait for presidential-election results outside the Miraflores Palace in Caracas on April 14, 2013

Here is the one unmistakable reality of Sunday’s special presidential election in Venezuela: even if Nicolás Maduro won, he lost. This race had a rarefied gauge, and it wasn’t simply the vote tally. It was whether the authoritarian-socialist model left by the firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in office because of cancer last month after a 14-year reign, can survive without his demigod presence. That is, his actual presence and not his reincarnation as a bird, as Maduro goofily claims the late Chávez appeared to him recently. By defeating his centrist rival Henrique Capriles by an embarrassingly tight margin of 50.7% to 49.1% — after Chávez routed Capriles just six months ago by 11 points — Maduro, whom Chávez had handpicked as his successor, laid bare two things about Chavismo without Chávez. The first is that el comandante, who always ran a one-caudillo show, failed to groom anyone who could fill his red beret politically. The second is that Venezuelans, with Chávez’s blustering figure gone, now recognize the raft of economic and social messes he left behind.

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And that makes the political landscape ahead in Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, volatile if not potentially violent. Maduro, who to his credit said he’d accept the full vote recount Capriles is demanding, called his win “a fair, legal and constitutional triumph,” and it probably was, despite opposition concerns about the Chavista-packed National Election Council, known as CNE. But Capriles argued he’d scored an equally important victory by exposing how vulnerable Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) is in the absence of the late President’s charismatic bond with its base. “This system,” Capriles declared, “is a sand castle.”

Yet however flimsy it may be — and the Venezuelan opposition, despite Sunday’s impressive performance, is no reassuring rock, either — Maduro and the Chavista leadership, including military honchos who have strongly hinted they won’t accept an opposition President, have insisted since Chávez’s cancer was diagnosed two years ago that only their leftist, anti-U.S. Bolivarian revolution is divinely anointed to rule. Now, with their humiliated backs against a wall, and bereft of the political tools their exalted leader possessed, the question is how heavy a hand they’ll resort to in order to preserve Chavismo’s dominance — and the petrowealth it presides over.

The wild card is Maduro himself, whose lack of an electoral mandate means he has to worry not only about an emboldened opposition but also about challenges from inside his PSUV. Chávez was never quite the dictator his foes claimed, but he was notorious for measures like “antidefamation” laws that made insulting him a criminal offense. Maduro, 50, a former bus driver and union leader, is a die-hard acolyte of Cuba’s communist regime and its rigidly vertical power structure; and as a result, says Javier Corrales, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Amherst College in Massachusetts, “the fear is that he’ll go after dissent now to make up for his weak position, that he’ll see sabotage of the fatherland and the revolution all around him.” That’s an especially valid concern, Corrales notes, since “Maduro’s wing of Chavismo is actually not the strongest.” Chavistas like the National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, who wields closer ties to business and the armed forces than Maduro has, may now smell blood in the water, making Maduro a potentially more defensive and authoritarian leader.

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But any new Venezuelan leader, mandate or no mandate, would chafe at the crises on his Bolivarian plate. Chávez certainly deserves kudos for using Venezuela’s vast oil resources to reduce its inexcusable poverty. But his often reckless economic MO may have undermined that very crusade in the long run. Lavish and indiscriminate social spending has spawned a currency debacle — the street exchange of more than 20 bolívares to the U.S. dollar mocks the official rate of just over six to the dollar — which in turn has helped make Venezuela’s inflation rate, which consistently tops 20%, among the world’s highest. Chávez’s nationalization of hundreds of private companies has left the country’s nonoil sector woefully unproductive, but even the state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela, suffers from significant underinvestment. Food shortages, energy blackouts and infrastructure breakdowns have become increasingly common — as has official corruption, the plague Chávez came to power decrying.

Some analysts insist the economic perils are exaggerated. “Opponents of the Venezuelan government are hoping for an ‘inflation-devaluation’ spiral that will help bring down the government,” Mark Weisbrot, director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., wrote recently in the Guardian. “But none of these problems present a systemic threat to the economy.” Others, however, aren’t as sanguine: many ratings agencies now consider Venezuelan debt among the riskiest in South America. And that’s hardly helped by the security emergency Chávez let fester during his presidency, which has saddled Venezuela with South America’s highest murder rate and made Caracas one of the world’s most dangerous capitals today.

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The violent crime crisis, in fact, points up Chavismo’s core flaw perhaps better than any other: Chávez’s subordination of democratic pillars like the legislative and judicial branches to his whims has handed heirs like Maduro a more institutionally dysfunctional Venezuela. If voters were trying to tell Maduro and the Chavistas anything on Sunday, it’s that Chávez’s demise has made it more apparent to them that his revolution wasn’t the “21st century socialism” he insisted it was.

Early on in Chavez’s reign, I often sat down with his younger presidential aides and asked them about the international community’s fears that he aspired to be the next Fidel Castro — something Chávez in later years would freely admit. Back then most of those Chavistas winced: “Fidel is the old Latin American left,” they sniffed. Or about growing rumors that Chávez wanted to nix presidential term limits and rule for life. That’s exactly what he later did, but back then they insisted, “No, he won’t, that would be a return to Latin America’s bad old caudillo days.” Or that he’d nationalize large swaths of Venezuela’s economy and forge bosom-buddy alliances with human-rights pariahs like Iran just to spite the U.S. It all came to pass, of course — but back then, I heard denial on all counts from the “21st century socialists.” Today, if I ever mention this to Chavistas, they dismiss my “excessive bourgeois thinking.”

To which I can only say after Sunday: it looks like Venezuelans would like to see more bourgeois thinking. Maduro may well be savvy enough to get that (though his rather boorish campaign attempts to convince voters that the unmarried Capriles is gay make me wonder). But the irony is that a large bloc of voters may well consider the 40-year-old Capriles — who stumped for the socialist-capitalist “third-way” project that has proved so successful under more moderate leftist leaders in Brazil — to be a more 21st century socialist than Maduro is. Either way, Sunday left little doubt that while Chavismo narrowly won a presidential election, it certainly lost any divine claim to rule. And that was the voters talking, not a bird.