FPI Bulletin: Post-Chavez Venezuela’s Uncertain Future

April 19, 2013

Under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was Iran’s, Syria’s, and Cuba’s strongest ally in Latin America, pushing an aggressively anti-American ideology as he aided and protected terrorist organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and used petrodollars to undermine the rule of law throughout the Americas.  But now that Chavez is dead, Venezuela faces an uncertain future.  While Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, is scheduled to be sworn in on April 19th to succeed the strongman, unanswered questions about the legitimacy of his election will have deep implications for future U.S. policy towards the Western Hemisphere and even the Middle East.
During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed that the United States has not yet decided to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president-elect.  Despite widespread voting irregularities that have sparked international condemnation, Maduro claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential election with 50.7% of the vote.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who received 49.1% of the vote, has demanded a full audit of closely-contested count.  The United States, European Union, and Organization of American States (OAS) have voiced similar complaints.  
As domestic tensions persist across Venezuela, it is increasingly clear that Sunday’s election was a referendum on Chavez and his successor, and the election’s razor-thin results signal a clear shift in Venezuelan public opinion.  Chavez left behind a broken economy, a deeply divided nation and a dysfunctional government, all of which will take years—if not decades—to overcome.  Venezuela is plagued with double-digit inflation, mounting budget deficits, and rising levels of violence.  While the OPEC nation maintains one of the world's largest geological oil reserves, crude exports—which account for roughly 45 percent of federal budget revenues—have declined by nearly half since 1999.
During the campaign, Maduro cloaked himself in the political ideology of his predecessor in an attempt to garner sympathy and rally support from Chavez loyalists.  As the Washington Post noted just days before the election, “an intrepid Venezuelan tweeter has been keeping track of the number of times that Maduro, the country’s interim president, has mentioned Chavez on television or radio since the caudillo’s death on March 5. On Thursday, the count stood at 7,102.”  During the campaign’s final days, Maduro even claimed that Chavez had appeared to him in the form of a bird—yes, a bird—leading the interim president to whistle at campaign events and public appearances.
Maduro clearly benefited from Chavez’s tireless efforts to undermine the country’s political institutions.  First, Venezuela’s election board refused to allow international observers from the Organization of American States and European Union.  Second, petrodollars and government institutions were used to woo and mobilize voters.  For example, Rafael Ramírez, chairman of Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company PDVSA and largest employer, headed voter mobilization efforts for the Maduro campaign.  And third, the government's near-monopoly control of public airwaves allowed Maduro to dominate radio and television broadcasts.  As Monitoreo Ciudadano, a non-governmental organization focused on Venezuela, recently noted:

Between April 2 and 11, in preparation for Sunday’s presidential election, State television channel Venezuelan Television (VTV) transmitted 65 hours and 21 minutes of government candidate Nicolas Maduro’s campaign events. Even after the official campaign period ended, the supposedly public TV station broadcast an additional five hours of Maduro. In the same timeframe, VTV transmitted only 23 minutes of coverage of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ campaign.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was adopted by Venezuela in 2001, states that “essential elements of representative democracy” include “periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage … the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers…”  Yet in Maduro’s short time in power, he replicated Chavez’s attacks on Venezuela’s democratic constitution and the rule of law.
Maduro’s actions in the days since Sunday’s election raise serious questions not only about the state of Venezuela’s fragile institutions, but also about Maduro himself.  Indeed, Maduro clearly lacks the charisma and personality of Chavez, and it remains to be seen how he will unite over an extended period of time the many competing populist factions that benefited under Chavez for so many years.  Moreover, the close election results will undermine his fragile political coalition and complicate much of his domestic agenda.
After initially voicing rhetorical support for an election audit, Maduro has changed his position and taken steps to grab the presidency through fear and intimidation.  On Monday, the election board—under his control as acting president—quickly certified the alleged election results.  On Tuesday, Maduro used a nationally televised address to threaten protestors with the use of a mano dura (“firm hand”) and promised that the opposition’s previously scheduled march would “not get to Caracas, and that’s the way it’s going to be…”  Capriles later canceled the peaceful protest in an effort to avoid violence.
For Venezuela’s opposition, Capriles’s decision to protest the election results signals the young leader has learned from his previous mistakes.  In the run up to the October 2012 presidential elections, Capriles failed to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process, and said he would honor and respect the election process regardless of the outcome.  When the voting rights of Venezuela’s citizens—guaranteed under the constitution—were challenged in the run up to Election Day, Capriles could do little.  This undermined confidence in the opposition’s ability to rhetorically standup against state corruption and intimidation. 
For the United States, it should welcome that Capriles may be emerging as the voice of the Venezuelan people and his supporters have already organized mass protests against the election results.  The United States should stand with him and the growing Venezuelan opposition during these dangerous days.  As Senator Marco Rubio recently stated, “The Venezuelan people should know that the democracies of the Western Hemisphere are watching the electoral review process closely and will seek to hold accountable any individual determined to have disrupted the peaceful conduct of free and fair elections

What’s more, Maduro’s dangerous behavior should be a wakeup call.  For too long, Washington turned a blind eye to Venezuela’s attack on democracy and dangerous behavior.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was right to call for a “100 percent audit of the [election] results.”  Given the current distribution of power in Caracas (Chavez loyalists dominate the election commission and Supreme Court), policymakers in Washington will need to determine a policy response that is both pragmatic and in line with America’s moral interests.  The White House should also work with key democratic partners in the hemisphere to ensure Venezuela’s acting government refrain from using violence against peaceful protestors.
Moving forward, the Obama administration should make clear to whoever emerges in Caracas that full diplomatic relations with the United States will be contingent upon Venezuela ending ties to international terrorist groups and rogue regimes like Iran, taking meaningful steps to ensure future elections are held as defined by Venezuela’s constitution and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and cooperating with the United States and regional partners to combat illicit narcotics trafficking in the Western Hemisphere.
If Nicolas Maduro does hold on to presidential power, he will have a choice: he can replicate the dangerous—and failed—policies of Hugo Chavez, or he can respect the will of the people.  Sunday’s disputed election shows the Venezuelan people support the latter.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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