Venezuela’s election aftermath
As political and economic crises deepen, the army waits in the wings
May 11th 2013 | CARACAS |From the print edition
WITH a narrow and disputed election victory last month and an accelerating economic crisis, the man who succeeded Hugo Chávez as Venezuela’s president got off to an inauspicious start. Now Nicolás Maduro’s efforts to establish authority are making matters worse at home, and setting alarm bells ringing abroad.
After appearing to promise a full audit of the election results, as demanded by Henrique Capriles, the candidate of the Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, the government backtracked. Human-rights groups say that more than 200 protesters, including teenagers, were detained by the military and many beaten up. Antonio Rivero, a retired general and leading opposition member, was arrested. He is on hunger strike, charged with “inciting hatred” and “criminal association”. Mr Capriles, who has asked the supreme court to annul the election, is threatened with jail.
There was violence even in the National Assembly. The MUD’s 67 legislators were barred from speaking and had their salaries blocked for refusing to acknowledge Mr Maduro as president. When they unfurled a banner decrying the “legislative coup” and blew whistles and vuvuzelas, the government’s congressmen attacked. María Corina Machado, an independent, needed a three-hour operation for facial injuries. The government blamed opposition “provocation” and claimed that one congressman’s bloodied face was the result of make-up. Members’ mobile-phone videos showed otherwise. (Government TV cameras pointed at the ceiling during the fracas.)
The neighbours are worried. Some members of Unasur, a South American political block, are smarting over the government’s U-turn on the election audit, which it seems was promised in return for their attendance at Mr Maduro’s inauguration. Since then Mr Maduro has accused Álvaro Uribe, a former Colombian president, of plotting to assassinate him (Mr Uribe has threatened to sue), and lashed out at Peru’s foreign minister, who had called for “tolerance and dialogue”. He made his foreign-policy priorities clear by seating Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president, in a prominent position at his swearing-in, and making Havana his first foreign trip.
Food shortages are worsening and inflation is nearing 30%. Falling oil prices have eroded foreign reserves, roughly 70% of which consist of gold, another tumbling commodity. The government has acknowledged the crisis by replacing Jorge Giordani, the hard-line finance minister, with Nelson Merentes, a moderate. But without a change of course, Venezuela is heading for social unrest.
Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the Assembly and a former army lieutenant, is seen as Mr Maduro’s main rival within the chavista movement. Many on the radical, civilian left view him as a dictator-in-waiting. His contemporaries in the army are now generals. Some fear that Mr Cabello is trying to engineer violence that would leave him holding the whip hand. Mr Maduro appears to have little room for manoeuvre. In contrast to Mr Chávez’s one-man show, government decisions are taken by a shadowy junta known as the “political-military command”.
For the first time, analysts are speaking of a split in the armed forces. Rocío San Miguel of Citizens’ Control, a think-tank, says street violence requiring army intervention “could oblige the armed forces to take a [political] position”. The government says this is alarmist talk put about by the opposition and Venezuela’s foreign enemies. But the crisis seems ever more real.
From the print edition: The Americas