Venezuela’s Illegitimate President
9:31 AM, Apr 23, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
During the 14-year reign of Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans became drearily accustomed to hearing so-called cadenas interrupt the regular programming on their radios and television sets. These are “chained” broadcasts (the word cadena means “chain”) that all stations must carry. They originated long before Chávez took power, mainly to help the Venezuelan government disseminate urgent information about a matter of national importance, such as a natural disaster. Under the so-called Bolivarian revolution, they were transformed into shameless propaganda vehicles.
Chávez passed away on March 5, but the cadena is alive and well. His designated successor, 50-year-old Nicolás Maduro, who took over as interim president when Chávez died, used cadenas throughout the month-long election campaign that ended with a day of voting on April 14. Unfortunately for Maduro, his attempts to mimic the successful demagoguery of his mentor failed to secure him a Chávez-sized victory, even after he flagrantly violated Venezuelan election rules. In the end, the official results showed Maduro receiving about 615,000 fewer votes than Chávez did in the October 2012 presidential election, while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40, increased his vote total from roughly 6.6 million in October to 7.3 million in April.
Maduro’s official margin of victory was only 273,000 votes, prompting Capriles and his supporters to demand a recount. At first, Maduro acknowledged the need for a recount. But then, after formally being declared the winner by the pro-Chávez national electoral council, he rejected a recount and told Capriles to accept defeat. At that point, massive protests erupted in the capital city, with angry Venezuelans banging pots and pans to vent their frustration. The sound “was deafening,” said the Economist, “even in the poor barrios of Caracas, traditional chavista strongholds.”
According to a Reuters dispatch, “Opposition sources say their count showed Capriles had an extra 300,000 to 400,000 votes not shown in the official tally.” Since Maduro won by only 273,000 votes, those extra Capriles votes would obviously have changed the outcome. On April 16, Capriles described some of the election irregularities in greater detail, noting that (1) opposition election observers were kicked out of more than 280 different polling places (where approximately 723,000 votes were cast); (2) more than 3,500 voting machines were damaged; (3) there were around 600,000 dead people on the voter rolls; and (4) nearly 1,200 voting machines recorded significantly more votes for Maduro than they did for Chávez back in October, despite the fact that Chávez received a much larger share of the national vote than Maduro did.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities still need to tally up the 100,000 or so votes cast by expatriates. For that matter, writes Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady, “The opposition claims that more than 500,000 Venezuelans living in exile have also been denied voter registration they are entitled to by law.” In October, Capriles won 91 percent of the expat vote.
On the same day that Venezuela’s youthful and charismatic opposition leader made his case for a recount, Maduro used three separate cadenas to denounce him as a traitorous fascist. As the New York Times reported, Maduro “angrily criticized Mr. Capriles, sometimes working himself into what seemed to be near hysteria, shouting until he was nearly out of breath, often stabbing his finger directly at the camera. He compared the opposition to Nazi Germany, accused them of planning a coup, and said they hoped to bring about a civil war like those in Libya and Syria.”
In the real world, it was Maduro, not Capriles, whose actions pushed Venezuela into post-election protests and violence. There have already been several deaths and dozens of injuries. Capriles has called for peace, and he even canceled a protest march scheduled for April 17, after learning of government plans to incite violence. He understands that Maduro’s goal “is to try to get the country into a situation of confrontation and violence,” so that the regime has a pretext for intensifying repression.
To its credit, the Obama administration swiftly called for a recount in Venezuela, and it has (thus far) refused to recognize Maduro’s dubious victory. Maduro has responded in typical chavista fashion: “The U.S. intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs in recent months, and particularly during the election campaign, has been brutal, vulgar,” he said on April 17. “Its direct coordination with the ‘yellow bourgeois,’ with the oligarchs, has been truly obscene.” Maduro also included a message for the U.S. secretary of state: “Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here!”
Like Chávez, Maduro is fond of slamming the “imperialist” United States (“the empire”) for disrespecting Venezuela. But it wasn’t just Washington that called for an election recount—the Organization of American States did, too, and the European Union said that a recount should be “duly considered by the competent Venezuelan authorities.” (Shamefully, the Spanish government withdrew its initial call for a recount after Maduro issued thinly veiled threats against Spanish investments in Venezuela.)
At a time when Venezuela already has the world’s second-highest murder rate, a sky-high inflation rate that could hit 30 percent this year, crumbling infrastructure, frequent blackouts, chronic food shortages, tensions within the armed forces, tens of thousands of pro-Chávez militia fighters armed with Russian weapons, and untold numbers of Cuban officials working in key institutions (including the military and the secret police), the country cannot afford a prolonged election crisis. Unfortunately, Caracas has defiantly resisted both domestic and foreign pressure for a manual recount.
Indeed, on April 17, the chief justice of Venezuela’s chavista-controlled supreme court said that a manual recount would not be possible. That same day, Maduro agreed to an electronic audit. But this “compromise” is much less significant than it sounds. While the full audit will probably take about a month, the national electoral council—known by its Spanish acronym, CNE—has already made it clear that opposition members should not expect the election results to be overturned. “We will not let something that aims to verify whether the system worked be turned into a sort of public impeachment that tries to question the results,” a CNE official said on April 20. “As always, when the CNE announces results to the country, it is because they are irreversible.”
In other words, Venezuelan authorities are not conducting the audit to find out who really won the election, but rather to confer greater legitimacy on Maduro, who was formally inaugurated on April 19. Opposition figures worry, with good reason, that the whole thing is just a charade. After all, Caracas can happily remind everyone that governments across Latin America have already recognized Maduro as president.
So what can the Venezuelan opposition do while they’re waiting for the (sadly predictable) audit results? For starters, they can file a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; they can bring their case to the United Nations; and they can go public with any documented evidence of electoral fraud and intimidation. Meantime, they can continue organizing peaceful protests to show the world just how many Venezuelans are outraged by the government’s shenanigans. Given all the irregularities listed by Capriles, along with the Chávez regime’s history of autocratic power grabs and political thuggery, a large proportion of Venezuelans will never accept Maduro as a legitimately elected president—at least not without a fair, honest recount.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.
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