A Fracas in Caracas—Maduro Wins the Election but Capriles Refuses to Concede Defeat
Following the death of President Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013—coincidentally the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death—Venezuela held a presidential election on 14 April. Chávez’s chosen successor and the acting president Nicolás Maduro won, but by a very narrow margin. His opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski had run in the previous election in October 2012, losing to Chávez by 11 percentage points. But this time the margin of victory was narrow, less than two percentage points. Capriles, who in early March challenged the constitutionality of Maduro’s appointment as acting president, refused to concede defeat. Instead, he called supporters into the streets for peaceful protests to back his demands for a full manual recount. When some of the protests got out of hand, resulting in at least eight deaths, the Maduro-led government accused Capriles of trying to trigger a coup. Meanwhile, Capriles and his campaign alleged the occurrence of more than 3,000 electoral irregularities, from armed thugs in polling stations to mismatches on tally sheets to including votes cast in the names of the thousands of dead people found on current voting rolls. But he faces an uphill battle in his challenge to election results. “Unless it can be demonstrated soon that Maduro committed massive fraud … it will be difficult for the opposition to make the case that the current government stole the election,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the meantime, legislators from the opposition and the pro-government faction turned to violence on the floor of the National Assembly. The fracas in Caracas came after the government-controlled legislature passed a measure denying opposition members the right to speak in the chamber until they publicly recognized Maduro’s election victory. In response, members of the opposition coalition unfurled a banner in the National Assembly denouncing the measure. Each side accuses the other of throwing the first punches; regardless of who started the brawl, legislators on both sides went on shoving and pushing each other on the floor. Videos of the fist-fight that ensued hit the internet; over 20 people are reported to have been injured. “They can beat us, jail us, kill us, but we will not sell out our principles,” one of the opposition parliamentarians, Julio Borges, told a local TV station, showing a bruised and bloodied face. “These blows give us more strength.”
Venezuela’s opposition, which for years was dominated by discredited old-guard politicians, has been rejuvenated by Capriles, whom Reuters characterized as “athletic and wiry with a reputation for drawing crowds of women. He also redirected the opposition’s ineffective ideological attacks on Chavez to sharper criticism of the policies that left the country wracked by violent crime and mired in economic turmoil. During his campaign, Capriles promised to keep the best of Chavez’s social welfare programs while abandoning the worst of his socialist economic policies, instituting a Brazil-style system that respects free enterprise while helping the poor. However, Capriles’ strategy did not prove effective, at least in part because, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, 6 out 10 Venezuelans were satisfied with Chávez’s efforts to deal with the poor. Maduro also has tried to identify with the poor and stressed his own working-class background throughout his campaign. Interestingly, Gallup data also suggests that the percentage of Venezuelans satisfied with the government’s efforts to deal with the poor tracks closely to Chávez’s overall approval rating, implying that this issue is important to many residents. Noticeably, both metrics shot up in 2007 and 2012, years Chavez stood for re-election and, perhaps not coincidentally, dramatically increased public spending, including a 67% increase in government spending ahead of the 2012 election. This perceived success in combating poverty is so important to the majority of Venezuelan voters that they are ready to overlook other issues, such as rampant corruption and crime. According to the same Gallup data, 63% of Venezuelans believe that corruptions is widespread throughout their government and a staggering 74% do not feel safe walking alone at night in the area where they live.
Maduro’s response to the opposition campaign, similarly to that of Chávez before him, was focused not merely on politics or economy, but also on Capriles Radonski’s Jewish roots, alleging that Israel financed his campaign and Venezuela’s opposition more generally. A grandson of Holocaust survivors, Capriles Radonski identifies as a Catholic. Nonetheless, state-run media identified him with “international Zionism” and “Jewish-Zionism bourgeoisie”, describing his platform as “opposed to our national and independent interests”. While President Chávez never explicitly threatened the Jews of Venezuela, his frequent harassment and staunchly anti-Israel positions prompted more than half of them to leave. When Chávez took power in 1999 there were approximately 22,000 Jews in Venezuela—today that number is between 9,500 and 14,000. During the second intifada, Chávez-run government sponsored rallies in support of the Palestinian cause. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Chávez accused Israel of perpetrating a “new Holocaust” and using Nazi-like methods to kill Lebanese and Palestinians. During the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza in December 2008, Venezuela severed diplomatic ties with Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador in Caracas. Anti-Semitic graffiti equating the Star of David with the swastika appeared in the country’s capital. The state-run radio recommended “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as an insightful reading. Jewish organizations and synagogues were attacked. At the same time, Chávez was nurturing an ever-closer relationship with Iran. In the final months of his life, Chávez even accused the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, of trying to kill him. For now, it is unclear whether or for how long the anti-Jewish atmosphere that Chávez encouraged to take root in Venezuela will survive him.
The geographical distribution of the votes is instructive as well. As the map reposted above from Electoral Geography website shows, Capriles won eight states, six of them with the margin of less than 10%. As he is Governor of Miranda, it is not surprising that he took that state in north-central Venezuela. Miranda had voted against Chávez in the 2009 constitutional referendum, as can be seen from the first map reposted on the left. The second map shows that Miranda gave less than 55% of its vote to Chávez in October 2012 presidential election. That the success of the opposition is due in part to the home advantage can be seen from the third map on the left, which depicts the results of the 2000 presidential election. That time, Miranda gave more than 50% of its vote to Chávez. The states of Táchira and Mérida, located in the Andean highland zone south of Lake Maracaibo and closely linked to neighboring Colombia, gave the highest percentage of the vote to Capriles in the 2013 election, 63% and 57%, respectively. The same two states were also the only ones to give the majority of their votes to Capriles in October 2012. The states of Lara, Bolivar, Anzoátegi, and Nueva Esparta also voted for Capriles in 2013, though the margin of victory in the former two states was less than 5 percentage points. These areas are not known for supporting the opposition: while all four gave a narrow margin of victory to Chávez in 2012, all but Nueva Esparta voted “yes” in the 2009 constitutional referendum and gave more than 60% of their votes to Chávez in 2000 presidential election.
One surprising result is the relatively low level of support for Capriles Radonski in Zulia, a traditional anti-Chavez stronghold, noted for its “oppositional “ culture. As explored in a earlier GeoCurrents post, the northwestern Lake Maracaibo area stands apart from the rest of the country; even consumer products that sell well in Caracas often fail to find a market in Zulia. This area is also bedeviled with problems concerning indigenous groups. In the past year, Several leaders of the indigenous Yukpa and Wayuu communities were murdered allegedly by wealthy ranchers infuriated at indigenous peoples moving into their prime grazing lands. On the surface, the national government supports the indigenous movement, but reports surfaced that the Venezuelan military itself has attacked the Yukpa and other local indigenous groups. Historically, Zulia has voted for the opposition. It was the only state, for example, to vote for the opposition candidate Francisco Arias in 2000. In 2009 constitutional referendum, it was one of just five states to vote “no”. Yet in 2013, Zulia was merely the fifth strongest supporter of Capriles. Such figures lead some observers to suspect irregularities in the Zulia vote tally.