After Venezuela’s Election, Chavistas and the Opposition Ready for Long Fight

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Tomas Bravo / REUTERS

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles demonstrate in front of Capriles's campaign headquarters with signs that read, "Venezuelans ready for anything. We want a vote recount" and "We won't allow fraud," in Caracas, April 15, 2013.

On a hill in west of Caracas, the 23 de Enero slum stands as the flagship of Hugo Chávez’s socialist dream. His body currently lies in a military museum here which overlooks el comandante‘s former presidential home, Miraflores, that lies in a neighborhood below. The slum’s walls are covered with artistic murals of leftist revolutionaries. One is a play on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In this incarnation Jesus’s disciples include Karl Marx, Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro and Chávez himself.

Up a steep, rickety staircase between houses lives Lisandro Pérez, known to everyone here as Mao after Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist revolutionary. The 54-year-old leftist militant was one of the founders—long before Chávez came to power—of the Tupamaros, one of around 40 colectivos, pro-Chávez gangs which run social programs and provide security in the slum, often through strength of arms. “Power comes from the barrel of a gun,” says Pérez, quoting his namesake, as he sits in front of hundreds of academic tomes on his bookshelf.  “This applies now as we ensure a heavy hand against the fascists.”

The “fascists” Pérez cites are Venezuela’s opposition, specifically Henrique Capriles Radonski who lost the country’s snap presidential election on Sunday against Chávez’s chosen heir Nicolás Maduro by less than 300,000 votes. It is the closest the opposition has come to power in Venezuela since Chávez took the reins in 1998 and a demonstration that the political ideology of Chavismo is severely dented without its namesake. (Capriles is hardly a fascist; his campaign had to borrow from the socialist Chávez’s populist rhetoric.)

(PHOTOS: In Caracas, Tensions Simmer over Venezuelan Election)

Capriles has refused to accept the result, accused the government of fraud and demanded a recount. The opposition has sent a list of thousands of discrepancies it says it has found in the voting process to the electoral council. It includes allegations that monitors were forced—some at gunpoint, says Capriles—to leave before counting began. He also cited a polling station where nearly 200 more people voted than were registered. The opposition awaits a response while tension in Venezuela rises. (In the meantime, Capriles has won a concession in his demand for a recount. The electoral council has agreed to a 100% audit though this will take some weeks. Maduro was to be inaugurated on Friday).

The pro-Chávez colectivos are accused of playing a part in violence here and there are fears that the provocative sloganeering of Chavistas like Pérez could turn into real, deadly violence. On Tuesday, a pro-Chavista group tore through Los Teques, the capital of Miranda state of which Capriles was governor until he stood for Sunday’s election. They launched Molotov cocktails, smashed up buildings and wielded pistols. “They come looking for trouble,” said Fuad Zarifa, a cafe-owner just off the main plaza.

The previous day, in the streets of the capital’s wealthy district of Altamira, police used rubber bullets and tear gas to hold back opposition protesters gathered in the main plaza. “We have to protest as there’s an unelected president in office,” says 24-year-old economics student Alejandro Blanco as he walked toward the police line, while fellow protesters threw rocks and burned tyres. Eight people died across the country in post-electoral violence on Monday with around 60 injured. More than 130 arrests were made nationwide.

Both Capriles and Maduro had called for “peaceful” protests, a somewhat naive expectation given the tensions mounting in a country that already has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Maduro placed the blame for the deaths squarely on Capriles’ shoulders, calling him a “coup plotter” and “murderer,” with a nod also towards Washington. “The [US] Embassy financed and led these violent acts,” he said. Politically, this was an effective rhetorical play by the president-elect, bringing back memories for Venezuelans of the violence that surrounded the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, which has long tainted the opposition.

(PHOTOS: The Chavistas Hang On to Venezuela’s Presidency)

Capriles therefore had to be equally smart in distancing himself from the violence; he even called off a planned street protest on Wednesday. “The government wants there to be deaths in this country,” he said, urging supporters not to “play the government’s game… [The violence] is doing me harm.” Capriles claims the violent protesters were government infiltrators trying to make the opposition look bad.

Maduro has warned that, should the opposition stoke further violence, “we will have to radicalize the revolution.” Foot-soldiers like Pérez in 23 de Enero, the leaders of the colectivos, say they are ready to act on the president’s pronouncements. Since the election Maduro has thumbed his nose at both the opposition as well as those in the international community, such as the U.S., who have as of yet failed to recognize his legitimacy. “Take your eyes off Venezuela, [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry,” said Maduro. “We don’t care about your recognition.” While the U.S. has failed to back Maduro, leaders in the South American regional bloc Unasur showed their support early Friday morning, congratulating Maduro on his victory.

Still, the Chavista government—while it won the election and continues to control Venezuela’s electoral council and judiciary—is hardly in a position of strength. Maduro’s margin against Capriles is nothing like the double-digit leads that his former boss commanded against the opposition in last October’s presidential election. Whilst other powerful figures in the government have kept their heads down in recent months, keen to preserve the legacy of Chavismo, they are likely to be more vocal in the coming weeks. Military leader and National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello said that the government needed to engage in some “profound self-criticism” after the narrow win. That uncharacteristic language from Cabello may be a sign of his animosity toward Maduro. As Venezuela’s grim economic and social ills fester—the country has some of the highest crime and inflation rates in the world—the Chavista bloc may struggle to present a united front.

Chávez used to belittle political opponents by telling them that “the eagle does not chase flies.” Capriles seems to have effectively demonstrated that he no longer represents the flies. With so few votes between the two men, the opposition has shown for the first time in a decade and a half that it genuinely can stand shoulder to shoulder with Chavismo at the ballot box. It remains to be seen whether the chronically fractious opposition can follow up their relative success with a solid strategy to consolidate their gains.

Gabriel Aziz, a 27-year-old student protester at the Altamira riots, wanted to return to the streets but grudgingly heeded Capriles’s decree to keep the peace. “I don’t fully agree with Capriles’ plan,” he told TIME, “but the idea is to avoid getting people killed.” Back in 23 de Enero, sipping coffee in his kitchen, Pérez doesn’t expect anyone to get killed. “Maduro won the election,” he says. “That’s it.”

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