Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro won election as the country's new president April 14 in a close election against Henrique Capriles, leader of the right-wing opposition coalition, the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (known by its Spanish initials, MUD). Maduro, whom deceased President Hugo Chávez designated to be his successor, led the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to a narrow advantage of about 273,000 votes out of more than 14.8 million cast.
The vote's closeness revealed the country's underlying polarization between two camps–the "Chavistas," whose support is among the country's poor and working-class non-whites, and the opposition, whose base remains the country's wealthy and its educated, lighter-skinned middle class.
Nevertheless, it was clear that the opposition succeeded in attracting votes from people who had supported Chávez in previous elections. As Martín Sánchez, a member of Marea Socialista, a revolutionary group that works within the PSUV, said in an interview:
The Chavistas lost 600,000 votes in this vote, compared to the October presidential elections. The difference is incredible. The polls said that Maduro had a 10 percent advantage, and it went down to 1 percent. If the election had gone on one or two more weeks, Capriles would have won. Even people who have received free apartments from the government in the last few months participated in the pot-banging protests on the two days following the election.
The opposition refused to recognize its defeat, as Capriles called for a recount of the votes. Despite insinuating that the government engaged in fraud, Capriles never formally lodged a protest with the country's election authority, nor cited evidence to back up his claims.
Nevertheless, Capriles' rhetoric, along with his calls to supporters to protest the results, touched off a night of post-election rioting that targeted PSUV offices and government health centers for the poor. An opposition politician's rumor, circulated on social media, claiming that Cuban doctors were burning ballots at a health clinic, led to an attempt to torch several health clinics around the country. As many as eight died and dozens more were injured in the rioting that ensued.
Maduro and other government spokespeople charged the opposition with trying to foment a "coup d'etat," but the armed forces remained loyal to the government. Opposition protests died down in the week leading to Maduro's April 19 inauguration, but the scene remained tense.
One reason for the tapering off of opposition protest was Capriles' acceptance on April 18 of the National Election Council's (CNE) plan for a full audit of the vote. This followed the automatic audit of a sample of 53 percent of ballot boxes to verify the vote counts between the electronic and paper versions of the ballots. The CNE plans to audit the remaining 47 percent of the ballot boxes over the month of May.
Despite the unsubstantiated claims of fraud by the opposition, the Venezuelan election system, well tested over the last 14 years, won the endorsement of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his Carter Center, for its transparency and multiple forms of verification.
Capriles' rhetorical demands for a recount, "vote by vote," was impossible for the CNE to fulfill since the system isn't set up to provide one. Capriles knew this, yet he continued to demand the impossible, knowing that it would cast doubt on the election among his followers and among the international audience that is even more important to him: the one in Washington. In the end, though, he bowed to reality and accepted the full audit.
To date, the U.S. has not recognized Maduro's victory. Testifying to congressional committees, Secretary of State John Kerry called for a recount of the vote. "Obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government," he said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "We call on the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of Venezuelan citizens to peaceful assembly and free speech"–even while the opposition mounted daily protests that security forces largely ignored.
Washington's concern with fair and proper procedures in close elections didn't extend to, for example, Mexico's 2006 presidential election, in which right-winger Felipe Calderón won over populist Andres Manuel López Obrador by a margin just one-third the size of Maduro's narrow win over Capriles. Even though Mexico's national elections agency admitted there were "irregularities" in the squeaker election, Washington hastily recognized Calderón's government.
And that's not even to mention the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its notorious 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, didn't hold the U.S.–or, more precisely, only the state of Florida–to the standard of a full recount!
While the U.S. bides its time with tacit support for the allegations of the opposition, the Venezuelan government, with Maduro as its president, won the backing of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the recognition of most of the world's governments. Even the president of the largely pro-U.S. Organization of American States said the OAS "offers our support and wish the best to the president-elect" Maduro.
On the eve of his inauguration, Maduro traveled to Peru to participate with regional heads of state in a UNASUR meeting. Under the moderate "center-left" leadership of Brazil, UNASUR backed Maduro. But it also encouraged the full audit of votes, even though Venezuelan law did not require it, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The closeness of Maduro's win over Capriles–by a margin of 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent–surprised almost all Venezuelan political observers. In the presidential election last October, just half a year ago, Chávez defeated Capriles 55 percent to 44 percent, for a margin of 1.6 million votes. This time, the opposition racked up more than 700,000 more votes than it received in 2012.
The real question is why the election was so close. Certainly the extraordinary circumstances in which it took place–a special election called to fill the president's term, a little over a month after Chávez died–injected a volatility and unpredictability into the race.
The short window for campaigning put a premium on an aggressive and straightforward message. Here, Capriles, who had just finished a presidential campaign, had the advantage over Maduro. Moreover, Maduro's erratic campaign appearances, including a rambling speech in which he described a vision of Chávez appearing to him in the form of a bird, were fodder for opposition attacks.
What's more, Maduro campaigned on Chávez's legacy and carrying the "Bolivarian revolution" forward, but he did little to spell out what that would mean for ordinary Venezuelans. So while Maduro's campaign seemed to dwell on abstractions, Capriles crafted a campaign around the very real problems that Venezuelan society faces: crime, corruption, shortages, power blackouts and the like.
The left wing of the Chavista movement is organizing to push for a program that will tackle these issues. On April 2, Marea Socialista activists joined with prominent intellectuals and activists to launch Patria Socialista (Socialist Homeland) to not only support Maduro's campaign, but to pressure the government to move further to the left. As Martín Sánchez said:
The close result of the election opened up a lot of possibilities for the grassroots movement–for the people who said we can't just continue what Chávez was doing. Maduro's campaign talked about deepening the revolution in abstract terms. But what we really need to do is address the impact of food scarcity and power outages. It's an everyday thing for people. Capriles actually ran to the left of Maduro on these issues, and promised to get rid of corruption.
That was just one example of Capriles' shape-shifting during the campaign. Although Capriles' political origins lie with the "golpista" (coup-plotter) wing of the ruling class that supported 2002's abortive military coup against Chávez, in campaign speeches, he claimed to be a "Bolivarian." Latin America expert Greg Grandin described this move in the Nation magazine as "an act that just a few years earlier would have been as unthinkable as Dick Cheney declaring himself a member of Code Pink."
Indeed, Capriles pledged to continue and improve the administration of the Chávez government's "missions"–oil-wealth financed programs of aid and subsidies to the poor for housing, food and health care. He promised to increase salaries and pensions. Taking another cue from Chavismo, Capriles named his campaign headquarters the "Simon Bolivar Center," after the 19th century Latin American independence leader.
In one sense, Capriles' ideological somersaults are a testament to the changes that 14 years of Chávez's rule had brought to the country. Capriles' and MUD's most stalwart supporters are the hard neoliberal right–from the Venezuelan ruling class, with second homes in Miami, to the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Yet the neoliberal candidate felt he could only obtain electoral viability if he hid behind pledges to continue policies that the government identified with "21st century socialism."
But one can't fully explain the shift to Capriles without addressing more fundamental social and economic problems that the Chavista project has not been able to solve.
The country's high rate of inflation, accelerated by the government's decision earlier this year to devalue the currency, has hit ordinary people hard. Rampant speculation in dollars and overbilling by importers forced the government's hand. While the devaluation should decrease government debt payments and increase domestic production for export, prices on staples from milk to cooking oil skyrocketed, and real salaries fell by more than 40 percent.
At the same time, millions of Venezuelans have to contend with shortages of everyday items like toilet paper and unreliable power supplies, which cause repeated blackouts in parts of the country. The first is due to unresolved problems in the exchange rates for imported goods, according to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The power outages are the result of underinvestment in infrastructure while demand for electricity has increased.
None of this is to ignore the impressive social progress of the Chávez years. For example, even though inflation is high, it is half of what it was under pre-Chávez governments. The percentage of the population living in poverty has been reduced in half, and the number of university graduates has nearly quintupled, according to the Bank of Venezuela.
Hunger, historically a chronic problem for the country's poor, has been virtually eliminated. In contrast to the pre-Chávez era, per capita income has increased by up to 2.5 percent per year. All of this is unprecedented in the region (and maybe in the world) in the neoliberal era.
However, this social progress hasn't changed the fact that Venezuela remains a petrochemical rentier state, with a need to expand its internal industrial capacity. Economist Víctor Álvarez, a former Minister of Basic Industries and Mining, wrote abook analyzing the first of Venezuela's economy under Chávez that highlights the ways in which the dominance of the oil industry and financial sector of have starved manufacturing and agriculture of resources.
At a recent seminar, Álvarez, who now works with the government-funded Miranda Center think tank, said that in Venezuela "the characteristics of the rentier economy have become more entrenched. And there we see a conflict with the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and the legal framework to promote communal models. The economy has become more capitalist."
He added: "Agricultural and industrial imports have been rising. There is talk about productive sovereignty, but that means boosting agriculture, which is currently only 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, and should provide at least 12 percent if we are to stop buying from the rest of the world."
With huge amounts of oil money sloshing around, inflation and widespread government and private-sector corruption are a consequence. Because of this, many citizens' interactions with the government are frustrating, and basic public services are never delivered. Before he died, Chávez himself called attention to problems of inefficiency in the government bureaucracy.
Added to other social problems, such as high rates of crime, the economic situation presented plenty of issues the right could exploit, especially as it sought to attract sections of the middle class that had formerly voted for Chávez.
The new Maduro government has many challenges on its hands as it assumes its new term. It has to address the social problems on which the opposition capitalized, while continuing the Chávista project that has improved the lot of the poor. It has to try to move the economy toward diversification when all pressures will be on it to expand its petrochemical base. And it will have to do all of this in a period when an emboldened opposition, with friends in high places, will have no incentive to help it accomplish its plans.
It's unclear which direction Maduro's government will turn. The power positions in his cabinet have gone to status quo figures who were close to Chávez. However, some leftists have gotten important posts, such as sociologist Reinaldo Iturriza, who will head the ministry for promoting communes, the Chávez program of local self-government. Andreina Tarazón, 28, will head the Ministry for Women's Affairs and Gender Equality.
For their part, rank-and-file socialists in Venezuela understand the limits of a government that proclaims "21st century socialism" as its goal, while coexisting in a "mixed economy" with powerful economic interests that oppose that goal.
Crucial to this task will be building the labor movement. While most unions broke from the corrupt, government-dominated labor federation more than a decade ago, they were never able to form a unified and effective union movement, despite success in local organizing in the private sector and some important experiments in workers control in several government-owned enterprises.
What Gonzalo Gómez, a leading member of Marea Socialista and participant in the Patria Socialista initiative, said in the wake of Chávez's final victory last October remains true today:
We increasingly insist on the need for a radical left current in the revolutionary process. While the government spoke recently of the need for a "responsible right" with which it is possible to have a dialogue, we–and a good part of the radical activists–believe that what is needed is a consistent revolutionary left able to push for a change of direction.
It must be a force able to guide the implementation of the policies that will complete the break with capitalism, to allow us to go beyond the "mixed economy" schema and facilitate the transition to socialism. The construction of the new society has been slowed by bureaucracy, thus delaying the solution of problems both urgent and structural.
The most important development of the last decade in Venezuela has been the flourishing of grassroots activism in workplaces, barrios and the countryside. In many cases, these movements have butted heads with representatives of "their" government. As in the 2002 "bosses strike," when workers took over the running of the oil industry and defeated a "soft" coup, rank-and-file activism can help to renew a project that shows signs of wear.
Lee Sustar contributed to this article. It originally appeared on SocialistWorker.org.