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The showdown in Caracas

The showdown in Caracas

Events in Venezuela are rapidly coming to a head. Following a flurry of recriminations, a showdown is looming between President Nicolás Maduro, the erratic heir to Hugo Chávez, and Henrique Capriles, the leader of the united opposition and a man facing some very difficult decisions. 

This current crisis stems from a dispute over the outcome of a special presidential election held Sunday to pick a successor to the late President Chávez. Following a process characterized by numerous oddities, Maduro was declared to have just narrowly eked out a win by less than 235,000 votes (or 1.5 percent of the electorate.) And that was before some 150,000 votes cast by Venezuelan expatriates were counted — a group of people who have, in the past, voted against Chávez at a rate of over 90 percent in recent years. 

In the wake of the official announcement, Vicente Diaz, himself a member of the five-person Central Electoral Commission (CNE), publicly requested that his colleagues allow for a full manual recount. Capriles himself soon echoed the recount request, stating that he would not concede the election until each vote has been accounted for. At first, Maduro used a rambling victory speech to assure Capriles that he would be happy to allow a recount, since it would only prove a greater margin of victory for the government. Yet by the next morning the revolutionary dauphin had changed his mind. Since then the "Madurista" regime has rejected the possibility of any additional scrutiny of the vote. 

Meanwhile, undeterred, Capriles and his allies have been attempting to exert pressure on the government from every angle to get them to agree to a public recount. Actively cultivating international support, Capriles has given press conferences to foreign journalists, including an appearance Tuesday night on CNN Español. Somewhat surprisingly, Capriles’ strategy actually seems to be getting some traction. International pressure for a recount is rising. Capriles has received strong support from the U.S. State Department, the Organization of American States, the Spanish Government, the European Union, and even the Socialist International

By late Sunday night, demonstrations were taking place across the country, and outbreaks of violence between government and opposition supporters soon followed. According to state media, there have already been seven deaths and many scores of injured. The government places the blame for this squarely upon Capriles, whom Maduro has compared to Hitler and "his fascists," who, he claims, are fomenting a coup d’état with the backing of the United States. Meanwhile, Capriles continues to accuse Maduro of electoral fraud and numerous other constitutional violations. In a part of the world long plagued by political violence, there is considerable concern that all this could easily spiral out of control. 

The morning after the election, Capriles called for a large public demonstration. The plan was for him and his supporters to walk across Caracas to the seat of the Central Election Commission, where they were to issue a formal demand for a recount. While article 68 of the Venezuelan constitution guarantees the right to peaceful, unarmed demonstrations, Maduro was quick to forbid the move: "Now they’re planning to march to the center of Caracas tomorrow," he declared. "That is not going to be allowed, you are not going to go there to fill it with your death and blood: I will not allow it, do as you will. I will wield an iron fist against fascism and intolerance." 

This in turn left Capriles in something of a quandary. A march in open defiance of the ban would likely have triggered a crackdown by government security forces or pro-government militias that could have ended with many supporters injured or killed. Yet a climb-down was almost sure to demoralize opposition supporters. In the end Capriles ended up giving a major press conference on Tuesday evening in which he detailed his allegations of widespread electoral fraud. He also used the occasion to announce that he was suspending the protest, claiming that armed government agents disguised as opposition supporters had planned to infiltrate the demo. The risk of violence, he said, was too great. 

Capriles asked instead that his supporters continue expressing themselves by way of cacerolazo, a traditional form of Latin American popular protest in which dispersed people bang pots and pans together at the same time. In this case it’s a much safer attention-gathering mechanism than conventional street demonstrations. Maduro countered Capriles’ request by requesting that his supporters send off "Bolivarian fireworks" to drown out the opposition clamor. As can be seen in this clip, the resulting din was somewhat unworldly. 

Meanwhile, beyond the fireworks, Maduro has likewise fought back by utilizing his party’s near complete control of national institutions to undermine Capriles and his allies. The acting president has stated that he will shut off the flow of government funds to Capriles’ home state of Miranda: "If they won’t recognize us, I will not recognize them." On Tuesday, opposition representatives in the National Assembly were told that they would no longer be able to address the chamber unless they recognize Maduro. Two members of the assembly, Julio Borges and William Davilla, were attacked within its walls by angry pro-government colleagues so violently that Davilla had to be hospitalized. (Chavistas won’t say what motivated the attack and Davilla and his friends say it was unprovoked.) 

The people on the island of Curacao, where both Maduro and Capriles have family roots, use a cryptic old saying: "If a rock hits an egg, it’s bad luck for the egg; if an egg hits a rock, it’s bad luck for the egg." With all the powers of the state and armed forces at his command, Maduro clearly enjoys rock status. Why then is he so nervous? 

"If you want to overthrow me, come and get me," Maduro declared at one point. Fighting words, to be sure, and yet Maduro’
s actions betray a certain sense of weakness. On Tuesday alone, Maduro used his office to seize the airwaves on five separate occasions, often seemingly just to interrupt Capriles press conferences, or to drown out moments in which the former candidate was addressing his own supporters or the international media. Venezuelan government authorities have already opened formal investigations of Capriles and other opposition leaders (including Vicente Diaz of the CNE) on charges of "inciting violence." This morning arrest warrants were issued, and then suspended, in a rather ominous (or disorganized) fashion. 

A less visible crackdown is also well under way. According to Alfredo Romero, an acclaimed human rights attorney and a member of the Capriles campaign, over three hundred student protesters (many of them underage) have been arrested nationwide. Some are being held incommunicado. 

"There are protests around the country," he told me earlier today. "Venezuela is in the grip of a polarization that has been actively created by the national government." Yet now, for the first time in over a decade, the socialist supporters are no longer numerically dominant, and the other half, after years of perceived repression at the hands of revolutionary institutions, retains very little faith in them. 

According to Romero, this is why he doesn’t think that opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles or Leopoldo Lopez will actually go to jail. "In this country, such prosecutions are political, not judicial, and everyone knows it. Strategically it would be a bad move." To Romero, Capriles has now established himself as a necessary bulwark against the pent-up frustrations of around half the Venezuelan population — sentiments that, without him, could bubble over at any time. "Just as Capriles called off his protest yesterday to avoid bloodshed, he has remained a responsible leader," says Romero. "Remove him and other [opposition] leaders from the equation and you are left with something that the government cannot so easily control." 

Romero stresses that these opinions are his own, and not necessarily representative of the opposition’s plans. He says that he doesn’t envy the difficult decisions Capriles now faces. "We’re a tropical country — a passionate country where emotions rule, not cool reason. Right now there is excitement and enthusiasm. Capriles cannot risk losing it and he will if he isn’t firm in his positions. Yet go too far and…" He trails off. 

That’s the tightrope that the opposition now has to walk. Will noisemaking and appeals for international support really be sufficiently powerful tools to sway the regime into opening up its electoral books? Should Capriles call for massive protests or civil disobedience, almost certainly leading to his own arrest and increased bloodshed? When does the need for political justice override the need for societal peace? Venezuelans are about to confront these questions head-on.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.