Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Aftermath of the Post-Chávez Elections: Implications for US-Venezuelan Relations

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover and Jessica Allen


May 3, 2013

By Ruth Melkonian-Hoover

When Chávez’s heir apparent, Nicolás Maduro, won the Venezuelan election on April 14th by a narrow margin (less than 2%), the United States was not one of the first countries to congratulate him. With the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles calling for an audit the day after the election, the White House immediately echoed that call. While such a stance is understandable given the closeness of the race, one did not hear such sentiments coming from other key nations and regional neighbors like Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Colombia or Argentina, all of which have since recognized Maduro’s victory. 

It is not surprising that the opposition would question the results, given a much closer margin than many expected; Capriles lost to Chávez in October by 11% and pre-election media coverage in Venezuela in April indicated a similar outcome in Capriles’ race against Maduro. To date, Capriles is pressing for a full audit of the election. Thus far, he has not been getting the desired results from the National Electoral Council, which says he has yet to provide substantial proof, so he is threatening to take legal action. For its part, the government has threatened to imprison Capriles for inciting violence (nine people have died in the post-election violence). Recently, the government even jailed American documentary filmmaker Timothy Tracy on charges that he too has been fomenting post-election violence.

Capriles maintains that the elections were fraudulent because the number of votes and number of voters don’t seem to match in various regions. He also claims that opposition monitors were thrown out of voting centers in some locations. Finally, he points to problems with campaign funding and variance in media coverage for the candidates.  Some have noted that if substantial evidence is found, the call for a recount by the United States would be justified. However, the United States would be wise to wait until that time and respond to such irregularities in conjunction with other neighbors.

After a decade of considerable frustration, the Venezuelan opposition is now better positioned and comprises a significant force. It almost won this election and it can use the close electoral margin to press for more collective cooperation in responding to the dilemmas facing Venezuela, such as rising crime and unemployment. As for the electoral violence, the United States could take a cue from Pope Francis, and at a minimum, also call for dialogue and peaceful reconciliation in Venezuela between the government and the opposition.

During the Chávez era, American presidents Bush and Obama were wise not to respond to Chávez’s constant rhetorical jabs. The United States watched as numerous Latin American nations fell under Chávez’s influence, among them Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Nicaragua. With Chávez’s passing, Venezuela is unlikely to maintain the regional leadership role it had had over the last decade, although Maduro has reassured Cuba of his support and the supply of Venezuelan subsidized oil. Because Maduro lacks the status, charisma, and power of Chávez, it is unclear if Venezuelans will continue to tolerate the kinds of regional largesse that Chávez doled out to key allies noted above.

If the campaign is any indicator, Chávez’s mantle is not resting well on Maduro. Although constrained by a concentration of power in the executive branch, the opposition is poised to more effectively provide a check on Maduro’s efforts than on those of Chávez. Additionally, many of Venezuela’s allies may not be as committed to the socialist “Bolivarian Alternative” promoted by Chávez; with him gone, they may be more willing to cooperate with the United States on multiple fronts such as economy, security, and energy.

Soon after Barack Obama became president, he promised to approach Latin America like a partner. Latin Americans have not quickly forgotten the United States’ record of involvement in the region, particularly American willingness to forcefully ensure that governments of its liking would stay or come to power. As a liberal democracy, the United States should continue its newer commitment to democracy promotion in the region, but it ought to do so in conjunction with its Latin American allies. It is of particular importance that the United States truly moves multilaterally rather than unilaterally, carefully and slowly, treating Latin American nations like serious partners rather than as lovers to be alternately dominated or neglected. 

- Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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