Set against the backdrop of a deeply polarized election campaign over the future of the post-Hugo Chavez era, it became clear late Sunday night that Nicholas Maduro would become the next President of Venezuela—albeit with a very narrow margin. When the final vote count came in, it was announced that Maduro had won with 50.7% of the vote, with his opponent Henrique Capriles taking 49%. In the absence of any unforeseen situations, Maduro is scheduled to be officially sworn in on Friday.
Given the 1.7% margin of victory, Capriles is alleging widespread irregularities and is demanding a manual recount of all votes. Until this happens, Capriles has publicly stated that he will regard Maduro as “an illegitimate president.” Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to jump on the opposition bandwagon, telling a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that “We think there ought to be a recount. . . . Obviously if there are huge irregularities we’re going to have serious questions about the viability of that government.”
According to the National Electoral Council, due to the nature of Venezuela’s voting system, it is impossible to conduct a manual recount of all votes. In response to the opposition’s demands for a 100% recount, Venezuelan Chief Justice Luisa Estella Morales said that the nation’s 1999 constitution eliminated manual recounts, reaffirming that “In Venezuela the electoral system is completely automated. Therefore, a manual count does not exist. Anyone who thought that could really happen has been deceived. . . . The majority of those who are asking for a manual count know it and are clear about it. Elections are not audited ballot by ballot but through the system.” Instead, the National Electoral Council said it had conducted an audit of 54% of the ballots and their respective voting slips.
During the elections on Sunday, international observers did not report any incidents or suspicious activities which were of concern. Such groups included a delegation from the U.S. Lawyers Guild, members of theScottish Parliament, and former presidents Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic and Alvaro Colom of Guatemala. In September 2012, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter remarked that “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
In a televised speech Maduro responded by stating that “The U.S. intervention in Venezuelan internal affairs in recent months, and particularly during the election campaign, has been brutal, vulgar. . . . Its direct coordination with the ‘yellow bourgeois,’ with the oligarchs, has been truly obscene.” Such responses have bolstered the opposition supporters, leading to a further polarization of the country. Since Sunday, the ongoing political clashes have resulted in eight reported deaths and hundreds of injuries and arrests. It has also been reported that Cuban medical doctors have been the targets of opposition violence—with several Cuban staffed clinics set on fire by opposition supporters. Attacks have also been reported on the Telesur and VTV media buildings, in addition to the houses of various government officials.
While Maduro did not give specifics of U.S. intervention in his speech, based on the historical record such claims should not be dismissed as simply wild speculation. It has become commonly understood that USAID, the International Republican Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy have all funded and strategized with the Venezuelan opposition.
Furthermore, the New York Times has acknowledged that in 2002 that the C.I.A. backed a coup d’etat against Chavez, which was foiled due to immediate popular pressure for his reinstatement. Despite their failure in 2002, the U.S. government remained undeterred in their quest to undermine Chavez. Such was revealed in a 2006 Wikileaks cable that outlined U.S. government’s five-point strategy to weaken the Chavez government. The five points are outlined as being: strengthening democratic institutions, penetrating Chavez’s political base, dividing Chavismo, protecting vital U.S. business interests, and isolating Chavez internationally.
As of Wednesday, the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad, andUruguay have all come forward and congratulated Maduro on his electoral victory. Regional organizations such as MERCOSUR and UNASUR have all offered their congratulations to Maduro for his electoral victory. Tellingly, the U.S. backed Organization of American States refrained from openly accepting the results.
In reference to the U.S. position articulated by John Kerry, Bolivian President Evo Morales remarked that“I would like to express that this is a flagrant U.S. interference in Venezuela’s democracy, as neither that spokesperson nor the U.S. government has moral authority to question electoral results in any Latin American country or around the world.” Similarly, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has also criticized the stance of the State Department regarding their failure to recognize the victory of Maduro, stating that “I dare ask, with much humility, [that] the government of the United States . . . recognize the Venezuelan government after transparent and fair elections.”
However, close or controversial election contests are nothing new to the hemisphere. In the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, an extremely tight race led to a recount of votes in Florida. It was later revealed that African American voting precincts had three times the number of discarded or spoiled ballots in a result where George Bush won by 537 votes. In 2012, the U.S. was quick to congratulate Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory over the left leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador—despite widespread allegations of voter fraud and bribery. The United States has also given the thumbs up to the 2010 elections in Haiti where Michel Martelly was elected in a race in which 14 political parties were banned, or in Honduras in 2009 when the United States recognized an election which institutionalized the coup d’etat of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. The list is much longer; however, political double standard should be obvious to anyone.
Despite this record of selective support for democracy, the U.S. mainstream media attacks upon Maduro have been relentless—portraying his victory as part of a sinister plot. An April 16 piece by the Washington Post editorial board highlighted their collective ignorance of the situation and the nostalgia for a return to the Monroe Doctrine by remarking that “The (Obama) administration should begin coordinating with Mexico, Chile, and other important Latin American democracies to prevent Mr. Maduro from killing his way into power.”
While it is understandable that the United States is not pleased with the outcome of the election in Venezuela given their economic interests, it does not give them the right to undermine the political process of a sovereign country. Such irresponsible editorials and political posturing by the U.S. media and government no doubt add fuel to the opposition’s fire and puts hopes for a peaceful settlement further out of reach.
While the situation in Venezuela still remains tense and unclear, one can only hope that a peaceful political settlement can be reached. It should be the duty of the international community to help Venezuela achieve this goal—not undermine it. If the goal is for the democracy to run its course in Venezuela, it is incredibly important that anti-democratic means do not become the tools of choice in order to bring about a change in government more favorable to U.S. interests. Anything else risks sending the country onto a path of prolonged political conflict and economic regression which will only harm the Venezuelan people and severely damage the already strained relations between the United States and Latin America.