Nicolás Maduro’s unfinished campaign

Nicolás Maduro’s unfinished campaign

Nicolás Maduro, who is now officially Venezuela’s president, is not enjoying much of a honeymoon period. After narrowly winning a special election to replace the late President Hugo Chávez — only to have his main rival question the results — Maduro should be extending an olive branch to the vast sectors of voters that opposed him.

Ever the radical, Mr. Maduro is doing just the opposite. He seems to be fighting the fire with (heavily subsidized) gasoline.

Maduro began his post facing serious protests. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles asked his followers to bang pots and pans in the streets in protest over what they deemed a fraudulent election. Maduro responded by calling his supporters (mainly, government bureaucrats) to shoot fireworks in response. The result was a loud mess in Caracas that did little to smooth over differences.

Maduro’s next line of attack came when he appointed his cabinet. Most of the names were recycled from old chavista cabinets, casting serious doubt about the new president’s ability to change course. The new finance minister used to be president of the Central Bank; the new tourism minister is the old communications minister; and the new electricity minister has held six previous ministry positions in the past.

Some of his appointments were highly controversial. Maduro ratified the defense minister (an active Navy man), who had said that the armed forces "would ensure [Maduro’s] election." The controversial prisons minister, who presided over some of the most deadly riots in the history of the continent, was also ratified. She quickly went on air to say that she was preparing a "special cell" for Mr. Capriles, to purge him of his "crimes" as well as "his drug habit." (Chavistas have long accused Capriles of being a drug user, which he has never even bothered responding to.) And the housing minister, who surfaced in a YouTube video earlier in the month saying that he would fire any government employees who had voted for Capriles, "labor laws be damned," was also ratified.

Yet another battle is being fought in the National Assembly, Venezuela’s single-chamber legislature. The president of the legislature, Diosdado Cabello, decided that no opposition representative will be allowed the right to speak in the assembly unless he or she accepts Maduro as President. He has also stopped paying opposition deputies’ salaries and the rest of their parliamentary allowances.

Meanwhile, the president continues to talk about Capriles as if it were still campaign season. He frequently refers to Capriles as a member of the "bourgeoisie." More significantly, he has threatened to cut funding for the state of Miranda, where Capriles is governor.

Since Venezuelan states cannot raise funds independently via debt or taxation, all of their funding is transferred from the central government. The Venezuelan Constitution clearly establishes the rules that govern such transfers: States receive a certain percentage of the federal budget according to their population. In the last fifty years, federal transfers had never been used for political retaliation — until now.

The government has also heightened repression in light of increased calls of its illegitimacy. A prominent former military man, Antonio Rivero, was jailed on trumped-up charges and soon after went on hunger strike. The government has also jailed an American documentary filmmaker, Timothy Tracy, on made-up charges of "espionage" while he was trying to board a commercial flight back to the United States. In the meantime, there are numerous stories surfacing of harassment of government employees. The search for "moles" inside the government has even included checking their Facebook pages to see if they have any activity related to Capriles. It is rumored there are active military personnel being held in custody for expressing support for Capriles, although this has not been confirmed.

As all this plays out, Venezuela’s electoral body, the CNE, has basically denied the elections audit that Capriles requested. Instead, they have put forward a partial audit; Capriles is boycotting it, and is preparing to file suit in the courts over the election. It would take a miracle for the heavily chavista courts to rule in his favor, which can only mean that Mr. Capriles will have to take his case overseas.

With the independence of key institutions in question and a reckless new president intent of burning bridges (instead of building them), only one thing is clear: The period of deep instability in Venezuela is nowhere near over.    

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.