By MARC ROME
(Updated on May 4) In the April 14 Venezuelan presidential snap election, the late Hugo Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, edged out his right-wing opponent, Henrique Capriles. “Chavismo” will continue in power after Chavez, although with the weakest mandate since Chavez’s defeat in the 2007 constitutional referendum.
Less than 300,000 votes separated the two candidates, with nearly 78% of the electorate casting a vote, a thin margin separating the polarized country. Maduro’s victory was made official by an announcement of the Venezuelan electoral commission, which pointed to high standards of auditing and voting procedures that allow each voter to verify a vote by comparing the one displayed on a thumb-print-identifying, touch-screen computer against a paper receipt, which is dropped into a secure ballot box.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center called the Oct. 5, 2012, election procedures, in which Chavez defeated Capriles by 11%, the “best in the world.” Many international election agencies have called the April 14 election fair and accurate, but the Obama administration has announced that the U.S. is not ready to accept the vote.
Capriles and his MUD party (Mesa de Unidad Democrática) have formally contested the election results before the Venezuelan Supreme Court, after previously demanding an audit of 100% of the ballot boxes, which they subsequently rejected when the electoral commission would not also audit the voter registry. A May 2 article on the pro-Chavez Venezuelanalysis.com reported that “Capriles demanded a verification of all the signatures and fingerprints that voters place in the voter registry at the time of voting, but the CNE has said this would be impossible, as there are more than 15 million signatures and fingerprints that would have to be evaluated.”
Since April 15, when Capriles called off a mass march of oppositionists in Caracas to protest the election results after Maduro announced that he would not allow the event to take place, efforts by the opposition to delegitimize the Maduro government and destabilize the country have continued nearly unabated in the wake of post-election mobilizations of rightists in pot-banging protests and fascist-type violence.
The pro-Chavez Venezuelan website Apporea reported that thugs shot dead several Maduro supporters and a state-oil (PDVSA) worker, attacked medical buildings staffed by Cuban doctors (leaving one dead), and even attempted to set ablaze the Chavista governor’s building in Merida. Venezuelan state television announced the arrest of armed Colombian and Salvadoran paramilitaries in possession of Venezuelan army uniforms and claimed that they had plotted to destabilize the country. As many as nine people have been killed, and scores have been injured in post-election violence that has been aimed primarily at Maduro supporters.
A layer of opposition legislators have refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimately elected head of state, sharpening a state of political deadlock in the highly polarized country. On April 30, oppositionists unfurled a banner in the chambers that read “Coup in Parliament” to protest a decision of the head of the National Assembly that refused to allow lawmakers to intervene on the floor if they did not recognize Maduro as the lawfully elected president. Consequently, the National Assembly meeting erupted in a brawl between opposition and pro-Chavez legislators.
Further highlighting the political and social division of the country was the fact that two separate massive May Day rallies were held in Caracas, one led by Chavistas, the other by the opposition.
The opposition seems to have tacit political backing by the Obama administration. The U.S. president all but announced in an interview on Univision that the elections were fraudulent. According to the May 4 Washington Post, he said that “it’s up to the people of Venezuela to choose their leaders in legitimate elections.”
Recent U.S. meddling in Latin American and Carribean politics, including funding and helping to coordinate coups, have been well documented: Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, Honduras in 2009, and Paraguay in 2012. An April 10 article in The Nation by Natalia Viana details the extent to which the Obama administration, through USAID, among other official government agencies, funded the principal coup-makers in Paraguay and garnered international support.
During the Venezuelan presidential campaign, Maduro accused the opposition of coordinating electricity blackouts during campaign visits to various states throughout the country. The levers of the electricity grid are in the hands of the state and secured by the military and have been since nationalization in 2007 merged 10 state-owned power companies into one. If Maduro’s accusations are true, they speak to both the power of the opposition and the tenuous control that the Chavista forces have over the country’s key industries.
Speaking ceremoniously to a mass crowd of supporters from the balcony of the presidential Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Maduro vowed carry on Chavez’s political program, his Plan de la Patria, to build “21st century socialism.”
Yet, for one who refers to himself as “Chavez’s son,” Maduro has seemingly inherited little of the political verve that his predecessor developed through his radical past as a coup plotter and coup breaker, which allowed Chavez to politically balance between the major opposing class forces for 14 years. The poor received a hefty slice of the national oil surplus under Chavez through government programs—although billionaire speculators also gained.
Nevertheless, the reconfigured oil-royalty rates became anathema to corporations like ExxonMobil, which folded in 2008, having been accustomed to unfettered profits for decades. Chevron, France’s Total, British Petroleum, Norway’s Statoil, and other foreign companies continue to exploit the oil reserves of Venezuela; Chevron obliged previous loan requests of billions of dollars from Chavez, according to a March 5 article in Forbes.
Chavismo loses political ground
In the snap election, Maduro lost roughly 700,000 votes while Capriles gained the same number. This may be owed to the fact that even Capriles, like Maduro, vowed to maintain the popular social programs in food, education, and health care.
Moreover, between the last presidential elections in 2006 and those of 2012, according to the Fourth International website, International Viewpoint, “Chávez gained 752,976 votes while the opposition gained 2,175,984, or more than three times as much. In the popular districts of Caracas (Petare, 23 de Enero, La Vega, and so on) the Chavista vote fell by 6 to 9%.”
The economic outlook for Venezuela can only add to the uncertainty of the masses. According to Bloomberg, “Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds fell the most in almost 15 years yesterday as traders anticipated political instability will undermine the economy. Inflation accelerated to 25 percent in March, the fastest official rate in the region [decreasing the buying power of the Bolivar, which is a strain on poor and working Venezuelans—MR]. The central bank’s scarcity index, which measures the amount of goods that are out of stock in the market, rose to a record high of 20.4 percent in January.”
The website of the International Marxist Tendency reported: “Significantly, the opposition has won in the key state of Bolivar, where the main state-owned basic industries are situated and where there is an extremely critical mood amongst the Bolivarian rank and file against the governor Rangel and the bureaucracy in general because of their role in fighting against workers’ control.”
The struggle for workers’ control began in earnest after the December 2002 to February 2003 oil industry strike organized by pro-imperialist anti-Chavez political forces inside the country and the state-controlled trade union. Workers restarted and kept in operation key energy and oil installations crippled by the strike and saved the country from near economic collapse. Since then, the state has made some concessions, allowing varying degrees of workers’ control.
Where this relationship is exercised in practice, it often involves a tense cooperative relationship between the state and workers, with the state maintaining majority control. The National Guard has in the past been called out to fire on workers’ protests.
Meanwhile, the radical, independent trade union, the UNT, formed through rank-and-file initiative inspired by the defeat of the bourgeois oil strike, and once boasting over a million members, struggles to maintain its influence. This is in the face of another trade union, the CBST, having grown in part by absorbing layers of former UNT members but also due to the fact that it is the only union recognized by the official state party, the PSUV.
Maduro will continue to be tested in the coming weeks by the instability wrought by the country’s political polarization, a lack of confidence by foreign economic powers, electoral gains by the opposition, and discontent among radicalized sections of the working class. These conditions may work to the advantage of the right, which has maintained favorable relationships with imperialist powers, including the United States.
Washington colluded most infamously in the April 11, 2002, coup attempt, when Chavez narrowly escaped with his life, saved only by a massive mobilization of workers and the poor.
Unlike his predecessor, who enjoyed a more favorable margin of victory last October, Maduro’s room for maneuver is much more narrow and sharpens the difficult and dangerous contradictions of trying to straddle opposing class forces—balancing between the interests of the workers and poor on the one side, and the industrialists, wealthy landowners, and imperialism on the other.
Only a mass revolutionary movement of working people and the dispossessed can take the definitive steps needed to defend their economic and social rights against the onslaught of corporate capitalism.