For many people around the world, the election of Nicolas Maduro as President of Venezuela on April 14, 2013 came as no surprise, a sign that nothing has changed since the death of former head of state Hugo Chavez in March. Not that anyone expected it to. As Venezuelans came to the polls, they already knew that the opposition had little chance, if any, of winning. Chavez’s hand-picked heir indeed came first, rallying 50.8% of the votes, against 49.2% for the opposition, which was represented by the government’s long-standing adversary, Henrique Capriles. It was a close race; only 260,000 votes separated the two candidates.
Yet the opposition has not said its final word. Cries of fraud fill the streets and violence is escalating between the governmental party and Capriles supporters. While each leader blames the other and both call for peaceful demonstrations, reports acknowledged eight deaths and over sixty injured so far. CNN reporters stated that they were not allowed to verify who the victims were, consequently pointing out that no evidence suggests that only Maduro’s supporters were killed and hurt, as the President affirms.
For a country calling itself a democracy, Venezuela’s President is acting in an illiberal manner. Maduro declared that he would not allow any opposition march, telling the press that he was ready to use a ‘strong hand’ against demonstrators, a language no different from that of the late Chavez, underlining that freedom of expression remains a lure in Venezuela. As a matter of fact, the Foro Penal Venezolano recorded over 300 arrests of protestors asking for a recount of the votes, some of them violently abused by the National Guard. Last but not least, Diosdado Cabello, one of Chavez’s closest allies, asserted that opposition lawmakers would not be allowed a voice in Parliament until they recognise Maduro as the country’s rightful leader. A series of measures and actions that is all but democratic.
Interestingly, most countries applauded the Venezuelan elections. Former US President Jimmy Carter, who monitored close to a hundred elections worldwide, ensured that the voting system in Venezuela was ‘the best in the world’; voting operated using two computers, a first identifying the elector using fingerprinting while a second verifies that the identity card number matches the person’s name. The vote is then registered anonymously. All in all, commentators certified that vote rigging was nearly impossible.
This, however, does not mean that the elections were as fair, free and transparent as politicians and media networks worldwide have suggested. Nor does it mean that abuses before and during the election process cannot cast doubt on the overall results. Capriles and human right associations pointed to evidence of voting irregularities, such as the presence of numerous Chavista motorcycle patrols to intimidate voters and Chavistas paying electors for their vote or pressurizing them with guns. The refusal to let opposition observers oversee the votes and the refusal to give voting identifications to some opposition supporters adds to the existing suspicion. In addition, following the elections, Capriles first speech was cut down by an official allocution from Maduro, which all public channels were forced to broadcast. This was a practice recurrently used by Chavez, and Maduro appears similarly inclined to abuse it. All in all, the new President’s actions go hand in hand with the Chavista leadership’s assertion only a few months ago that if Chavez was to die, they would not accept any member of the opposition as President.
Importantly, the United States is amongst the few countries to question the legitimacy of the electoral results, backing the opposition in its demand for a re-count. Unfortunately, well intentioned or not, the Obama administration’s support for Capriles has been highly condemned. Latin American leaders, most of whom have recognised Maduro as president, see the United States backing of Capriles as another form of interference in the continent’s domestic affairs. Bolivian leader Evo Morales even gave a press conference on April 16th denouncing the ‘flagrant US interference in Venezuelan democracy’ and asserting that the ‘United States are preparing a coup d’état in Venezuela’. Such views are no different from that of Maduro himself; prior to the elections he not only accused the United States of hiring mercenaries to try to assassinate him but also stated that the CIA was plotting to murder Capriles and then blame the assassination on Maduro’s party.
The United States do have a history of imperialist behaviour in Latin America, which allows for a questioning of their motives in condemning the current Venezuelan election results. No one has forgotten America’s support for the violent Guatemalan, Chilean and Haitian coup d’états, respectively in 1954, 1973 and 2002. Nor can the 2012 American recognition of the Paraguayan government, after the democratically elected Lugo was ousted from power, be ignored. The United State’s dislike for Chavez and his party was no secret, and since Venezuela, being the world’s biggest oil reserve, is strategically crucial to Obama, one can easily foment ideas of an American conspiracy.
Yet, few seem to question the idea of an American conspiracy, which in itself is problematic. For once the United States might have Venezuela’s best interest at heart. Or at least hope to kill two birds with one stone: getting rid of the Chavista leader while actually promoting democracy in a Latin American country. Moreover, Chavez’s unpopularity before his death, as well as the undemocratic nature of his regime, appears to be widely ignored by commentators. His death left the country deeply indebted, with an extremely high inflation, an incredible suffering from crumbling infrastructures, a rampant crime trend as well as acute food shortages.
All factors taken into account, it should come as no surprise that the United States is questioning the recent electoral results. They are no longer the only ones doing so. Spain and the Organisation of American States – which include various Latin American countries – also recently asked for an audit of all results. The government has agreed to this request, a decision celebrated by the opposition. However it seems that the fraud was not in the polling system itself but in the refusal to allow opposition members to cast their vote. As a result the audit might not be able to shed light upon any transgressions, proving that democracy is still to prosper in Venezuela.