What Venezuelans may remember most about last month’s presidential campaign is the moment right at the start, when Nicolás Maduro Moros, the late Hugo Chávez’s chosen successor, told a television audience that the supreme comandante had come back to him in the shape of a little bird and, chirping, urged him on to victory. There was also the time he promised that an ancient Indian curse would fall on those who voted for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, and the rallies at which Maduro, seeking to give substance to the slogan “Chávez lives!” produced a hapless little man, or boy, who was indeed the spitting image of the departed comandante. There was the sight of the hulking and excruciatingly self-conscious Maduro—by some accounts a sober and thoughtful man in private life—trying to channel the spirit of the man he now calls “father” by singing, dancing, and even rapping in front of equally embarrassed crowds.
For three weeks Venezuelans watched Maduro on television and attended his rallies, probably giggled and possibly waited for the candidate to articulate a program to solve the dreadful problems Hugo Chávez left in his wake: one of the highest murder rates in the world; a community health system largely staffed by Cuban doctors in exchange for Venezuelan oil, which has led to the slow neglect of Venezuelan hospitals and an exodus of Venezuelan doctors (Cuban doctors abroad earn around $400 USD a month, Venezuelan doctors demand considerably more); a collapsing agricultural sector; inflation at more than 25 percent; crumbling infrastructure; constant blackouts—the list is long. Instead, Maduro continued to rail against those who would vote for Capriles.
From one moment to the next it wasn’t so funny anymore: Maduro—the loyal, circumspect, good-natured former foreign minister Maduro—had gone on the campaign trail with the full backing of the chavista state, chavista judicial system, chavista electoral oversight committee, and chavista coffers. Everyone, possibly including Capriles himself, expected him to win an easy victory. Yet on April 14, according to the officially impartial but unashamedly chavista electoral council, Maduro scraped out a tiny victory of just 50.66 percent to Capriles’s 49.07 percent. Or perhaps he lost. The government has lied so much and so shamelessly to Venezuelans—most notably about the nature and severity of the cancer that killed Chávez—that it was hard to take the victory announcement on faith. It was, in any event, hardly a triumph: If the official count is correct, Maduro managed to lose some ten percent of the electorate in barely three weeks. At midnight the exhausted but vehement Capriles demanded a recount.
And then chavismo collapsed into a scary collective insanity. In a leaked video the minister of housing could be seen snarling at employees that he would fire anyone expressing opinions against Maduro. The new president’s former and possibly future rival for power, congressional leader Diosdado Cabello, tried to whip the opposition into line by announcing publicly that any member of the the Asamblea Nacional, Venezuela’s single-chamber parliament, who failed to recognize Maduro’s victory would not be given the floor. A few days later he amended that statement to say that any asambleista who refuses to recognize Maduro and is therefore not allowed to speak would not be working, and would consequently lose the month’s salary.
A campaign started the day after the election to accuse members of the opposition of inciting violence. The word went out that nine people had been killed by opposition members on election day, and several voting stations set on fire. (There had in fact been angry confrontations between supporters of both sides, but the government has yet to provide evidence of politically-related arson or homicides in addition to the average of nine people who are murdered every day in Caracas.)
In any event, the new epithet for Capriles and his followers is “murderers,” a serious charge and a political mistake, considering that they represent half of the electorate. Last week, Iris Varela, a long-time Chávez protégé known for her flame-red hair and fiery temper (she is called “Little Match”) went on television to denounce Capriles. She called him an inciter to riot, a murderer, and a drug addict whose “pokey-outy eyes full of hate” (ojos puyuos llenos de odio) were the result of hallucinogen intake. Capriles has not been accused of any crime, but Varela told him that she had a jail-cell waiting for him. “And I assure you that nothing will happen to you in that cell…not like those jails we inherited from the bourgeoisie.” This, from a woman who supervises a notorious jail system in which hundreds of prisoners were killed in the course of vendettas, riots, and fires last year.
On April 28, retired Brigadier General Antonio Rivero, formerly director of the chavista emergency disaster relief program and now a member of the opposition, was called in by an old acquaintance, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, Maduro’s government minister, for a chat. “I want to hear your side of things,” Rodríguez reportedly told Rivero. Upon his arrival at his former classmate’s office, Rivero was told instead that he was under arrest on vague charges of incitement to riot on election day. He has been on hunger strike ever since. A seedy and amateurish propaganda video purports to show unidentified university students—students have made up a significant part of the opposition to Chávez—discussing with a gringo how much money they are willing to accept for acts of political sabotage. The gringo in question, who is in fact not mentioned at all by the olive-green-wearing “students” in the video, would be Timothy Hallet Tracy, a US citizen who was in Caracas making a documentary film, and who is still being denied consular access. (Asked about Tracy on his visit to Costa Rica last weekend, Barack Obama called the charges “ridiculous,” leading to further denunciations from the Maduro government.)
On April 30, the president of congress and Maduro’s great rival for chavista favor, Diosdado Cabello, looked on complacently while some fairly thuggish-looking congressmen beat up their opposition colleagues. Opposition leader María Corina Machado, a true burguesa, had her nose broken, another asambleista was hospitalized briefly after being thrown down a set of stairs, a third was beaten black and blue.
It is easy to imagine panicky chavistas, faced with a possible sudden loss of power, resorting to any number of tricks, schemes, and intimidations to stay in place. There is a lot of money involved, aside from everything else: the new rich created by chavismo, the boliburguesia—nicknamed by the opposition because Chávez baptized everything he ran in honor of his hero, Simón Bolívar—fly in private jets and wheel about Caracas in Mercedes, clad in designer clothes and privilege. But it is harder to think that Nicolás Maduro, a former union activist and foreign minister, a conciliator by vocation, is presiding over the scary nonsense his subordinates are engaging in. Nor can he believe that the seven million people who failed to vote for him are fascistas or really belong to the “oligarchy” or “bourgeoisie,” all three terms being used interchangeably, and sometimes in the same sentence.
While his political base crumbles, Maduro inaugurates theaters, attends circus performances, wears olive-green military-style shirts with ever-broader epaulets even though he never served in the army, and denounces coup and assassination plots against him. The one he denounced most recently was orchestrated, he claimed while offering no evidence, by former president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe, a right-winger whose popularity among his own domestic constituents remains far greater than that of the man he loathed, Hugo Chávez. But Álvaro Uribe has bigger fish to fry, like running a docile candidate in Colombia’s next presidential elections, while the Venezuelan opposition, after years spent sulking, has finally produced an effective politician, and would have little reason to plot against a man so bent on overthrowing himself.
But perhaps the plots and coups Maduro seems obsessed with are coming not from outside his party but from within. The growing tumult and disorder is so extreme, so clearly provoked, and so destructive that one must at least consider the possibility that it is being encouraged by defeated chavista rivals now smelling wounded prey, or from those sectors of the military who have never welcomed the Cuban presence in Venezuela, or both.
La unidad, la unidad, Chávez kept repeating during his final broadcast, urging his multifarious movement to stay together. He knew he was dying, and was trying to make fast his legacy, but he understood where the danger lay. As it happens, a very good way to judge a political leader is by what he leaves behind, and so far the tumult and mismanagement in Venezuela does not speak in Chávez’s favor. Instead, it seems as if recent Venezuelan history, often so farcical, were attempting to replay itself, and ending up as tragedy instead.