“The government will fall!” masked youth chanted as they hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at government supporters. On the distant side of the street, red Chavistas soon retaliated, launching fireworks directly at the opposition crowd. In the no-man’s land between the two mobs, cars parked on the street were peppered with stones and other small projectiles.
After a few minutes of exchanging volleys, there were shouts that the police were coming, and the opposition protesters dropped their weapons and threw their hands in the air. By the time a handful of riot police made their way through the no man’s land and small barricades of debris, everyone was pleading innocence.
Soon though, the main agitators migrated to another side street, and the tit for tat started all over.
It’s hard to say who initiated the violence, but it was clear that many of the supposedly peaceful opposition protesters were rearing for a fight. Along with improvised explosives, many of them brought along knives, clubs and other small weapons.
“They stole the vote from us!” said one man. Wearing a shirt sporting a campaign slogan of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, he argued that given the slim victory margin in the previous day’s elections, “this would happen in any country”.
What he was referring to was a nationwide call from Capriles to descend on the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Describing Nicolas Maduro’s victory as “illegitimate” on national television, Capriles urged his supporters to back his call for a total manual recount, after previously accusing the CNE of producing inaccurate results.
Separated by a wall of police, government supporters gathered less than a kilometre down the road. Most came out with the intention of peacefully showing support for the electoral system. Like the opposition, however, some came armed. Balaklava-clad banditos mingled with peaceful protesters, while the omnipresent ice cream vendor offered everyone snacks. While I contemplated how anyone could eat ice cream while wearing a balaclava, a round of cheers went out. At 5pm, the CNE had finished a recount, and found Maduro had received a few hundred more votes.
The opposition remained unconvinced. The CNE had only audited 54% of the vote, not 100% as Capriles had demanded. The president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena described this as “a statistical proportion that in any part of the world is considered excessive”, and urged the opposition to submit their complaints through judicial processes.
Instead, following the CNE announcement, Capriles again appeared on television. Refusing to accept defeat, he called for more protests. Throughout the night, the opposition bashed pots and pans together, and set fires in some parts of town. Similar protests took place in other parts of the country, with state news agency AVN reporting that medical clinics, government food distribution centres, a bank and even preschool were attacked. Lucena’s house was also targeted by opposition protesters.
In Merida, journalists working with government media were allegedly assaulted. While speaking with opposition protesters, my red lanyard was enough to raise suspicions. After displaying a Movilnet (the state telecommunications company) phone, one co-worker was likewise scrutinised. “People will think you’re a Chavista, with a phone like that,” one protester told her.
A Close Call
Since winning its first presidential election in 1998, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has gotten used to winning by landslides. Last October, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, won with a margin of just over 10 per cent. Until the last days of campaigning, Maduro was likewise expected to annihilate Capriles in the April 14 presidential election. Most analysts gave him a lead of at least 10 per cent. However, a last minute surge in support for Capriles meant that Maduro’s victory margin was just 1.8 per cent, making this the closest presidential race in Venezuela since 1968.
For some observers, the close result has been hailed as evidence that the fourteen year socialist revolution is finally running out of steam. This point was made in a Reuters article titled, “Without Hugo, Venezuela’s “Chavismo” loses appeal”. According to the article, “Maduro’s narrow election win suggests that “Chavismo” – the political philosophy and disparate coalition built up by Chavez during 14 years in power – will struggle without him.”
While it’s true that Maduro’s support base was overestimated by analysts in the lead up to April 14, there is no credible argument that Chavismo as an ideology is in crisis. A recent survey by GISXXI found that 80 per cent of Venezuelans believe Chavismo will outlive Chavez. More telling though, are the significant compromises made by the Capriles campaign to woo Chavista support. During the short presidential race, Capriles ceased criticising the emblematic Chavez, and instead focused on undermining Maduro’s identity as the previous president’s chosen successor. Capriles also began adopting Chavez style mannerisms, and promised to continue most Chavez-era social programmes, while arguing that his administration would also allow more room for the private sector. The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that Capriles’ platform was both more socialism and more capitalism. With over a million Chavistas defecting to Capriles at the polls, it turns out that this strategy of trying to claim Chavismo was the opposition’s best chance to gain ground.
Now that the elections have passed, however, the political divide is self-evident. As Mark Weisbrot argued on Democracy Now on April 15, “Capriles is…playing to the part of the opposition that in every election has not wanted to accept the results”.
“Every election since 2004, there’s been a part of the opposition that just says, you know, “We don’t buy it”,” Weisbrot said. On the ground, this means a reinvigorated, aggressive right-wing that is convinced a large portion of the population supports circumventing democratic and judicial processes to overthrow Chavismo. However, as illustrated in the post-election protests, the extreme right remains a minority. As does the violent factions of both the Chavista and opposition camps. Indeed, while some Chavistas fought with the opposition in the side streets, others actually tried to restrain them.
Although the protests outside the CNE offices were marred by violence, on the other side of Merida another gathering was taking place. In Bolivar Square, hundreds more Chavistas gathered in a peaceful display of support for their democracy. The rally lacked the energy and excitement that generally characterises Chavista gatherings. Instead, it was a solemn display of solidarity. It seems that despite Capriles’ political brinkmanship, Venezuela is not prepared to give in to violence.