Featured on RTÉ World Report
As Nicolás Maduro was sworn in as president of Venezuela on Friday, the streets of Caracas shook with the loud explosions of fireworks in celebration but also the incessant banging of pots and pans in protest.
It was a powerful demonstration of just how divided this country now is, after the death of Hugo Chávez from cancer six weeks ago
Chavez had appointed Maduro his successor in December just before his fourth cancer operation in Cuba. Chavez’s huge charisma and the often religious fervour and passion that he commanded from supporters was expected to give Maduro an easy win in last weekend’s election.
However, despite the wave of sympathy and the countless invocations of Chavez in the short, intense campaign, Maduro won the vote against state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski by less than 300,000 votes, a margin of less than two percentage points.
Capriles cried fraud and the opposition have offered thousands, they say, of irregularities to the electoral council. The body, heavily biased towards the government, has accepted a full audit though that will take a month. In the meantime, Maduro’s inauguration went ahead as planned.
During the week, supporters from both sides took to the streets.
In the wealthy district of Altamira, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who burned tyres and threw rocks their way. “We have to protest as there’s an unelected president in office,” 24-year-old economics student Alejandro Blanco told me as we walked toward the police line.
The following day, a pro-Chavista group tore through Los Teques, the capital of Miranda state of which Capriles was governor until he stood for this election. They launched Molotov cocktails, smashed up buildings and wielded pistols. “They come looking for trouble,” Fuad Zarifa, a cafe-owner just off the main plaza, told me afterwards.
Eight people were reported dead in the post-electoral violence.
Things calmed when Capriles cancelled a planned march on Wednesday. Maduro had already placed the blame for the deaths squarely on his shoulders. Politically, it would have been very dangerous for Capriles to allow any further violence.
He urged supporters not to “play the government’s game… [The violence] is doing me harm,” he said.
The tight margin questions whether Chavismo can survive here without its namesake.
It was the closest that an often fractured opposition have come to the presidency for nearly a decade and a half under Chavez. It was the garrulous leader’s untimely death at the age of 58 which allowed them a serious sniff of power.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and Foreign Minister, is keen to continue the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by Chavez. However, he lacks his former boss’ charisma and personality, key assets which helped Chavez connect with millions of voters and turn this country around—for good and bad.
This has been evident in the months since Chavez left for treatment. Supporters at Maduro rallies would not be so attentive as I remembered them when they Chavez took to the stage, like a rock star who captivated his audience for hours on end.
With Maduro, they mingled around the more empty squares, chatting amongst themselves.
In Barinas, Chávez’s birthplace, during the week before the vote, José Vicente Rangel, a 66-year-old teacher, told me that he was and always would be a Chavista. “If Chavez were alive today, I’d vote for him, of course,” he said, but this time around, he would vote for Capriles.
Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old governor, has clearly closed the gap between Chavismo and his own more market-friendly politics.
As Venezuela suffers chronic economic problems, food shortages and one of the world’s highest murder rates, the opposition is only likely to get stronger. The government, on the other hand, has to face governing this country without Hugo Chávez and facing up to some of the less positive aspects of his legacy.
That, could be its downfall.
For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Caracas