If defeated Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski was hoping to gain a Latin American ally in the wake of Nicolas Maduro’s presidency, he’s out of luck. The prompt congratulatory messages from Latin American heads of state following Maduro’s contested victory crushed Capriles’ hopes. Despite the irregularities surrounding the narrow election — rife with accusations of the infamousvoto asistido(government supporters at election stations telling citizens to vote for Maduro) — and violent protests in the streets, Latin American heads of state failed to support a recount or a postponement of Maduro’s inauguration ceremony.
Swift acceptance of Chávez’s heir from Cuba, Bolivia, and Argentina should surprise no-one. Though Peru’s Ollanta Humala caught some flak from political opponents, largely consisting of backers of ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori, who were looking to make a dent in Humala’s high approval numbers. Recent polls put the Peruvian president’s approval rate at 51%, down just 2% from January, a surprisingly high approval rate in Peruvian politics. Humala’s opponents are as noted mostlyFujimoristas, who repeatedly clubbed him as a proto-Chávez during his 2006 and 2011 presidential campaigns.
ColombianPresident Juan Manuel Santos’ also attended Maduro’s ceremony, a move unexpected but not unforeseeable. A quick recognition of Maduro will help to avert problems with the new Venezuelan head of state, problems the formerColombian President Alvaro Uribeconsistently experienced with Chávez. An example of this was the heated discussion Uribe and Chávez had during a 2010 summit in Mexico, where the two heads of state clashed over trade sanctions Venezuela placed on Colombia at the time (Uribe memorably told Chávezto “be a man”; the Venezuelan leader responded with an insult. ).Given such a precedent, Santos probably felt it would be wiser to congratulate Maduro instead of calling for a recount: whenSpaincalled for one, Maduro summoned the Venezuelan ambassador from Madrid. Hemispheric institutions also lent their legitimacy to the results, with the Organization of American States originally calling for a recount quickly shifting its stance and congratulating Maduro as the winner. UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations convened for anemergency sessionto address the post-election violence in Venezuela, but also ultimatelysupportedMaduro’s victory.
So Capriles must be feeling lonely at the moment. Yes, the U.S. and Spain have expressed concern, but they don’t, so to speak, live in the neighborhood — and being seen as too friendly with the U.S. will be politically toxic for Capriles (Bolivian President Evo Moraleshas already stated that he believes Washington is trying to stage an anti-Maduro coup). He’s done all he can domestically, and won a small victory there: he and his supporters’ vigorous protesting of the election results helped prompt the National Electoral Council (CNE) to agree to audit most of the votes (though not to perform a full recount).
His next move is the big question here. He could attempt a new major protest (known ascacerolazo) to put pressure on the CNE to speed up the recount, but he’s savvy enough to realize that Maduro will remain in power. Nevertheless, Capriles has shown that Chávez’s heir is not as popular as his predecessor. A bad Maduro presidency, particularly in regards to the economy and management of Venezuela’s vital oil industry, would leave the Chávez legacy vulnerable to an unprecedented degree. The next elections are not until 2018, but Capriles has demonstrated that Maduro’s popularity is not bulletproof and shown himself to be the natural candidate (barring the emergence of some superstar from obscurity) for the coalition of opposition parties to run a third time. And even if the opposition does not win the next presidential elections, they will likely win seats in the National Assembly and the governorships. The opposition’s biggest challenge in the coming years will be to remain annealed into a united front (theMesa de Unidad Democrática), to pose a political threat to Maduro and company, rather than dismantling into smaller, weaker parties.