Opposition leader Henrique Capriles had earlier demanded a recount after official results indicated that he had lost by a margin of 1.8 percent (about 270,000 votes of a total of almost 15 million) to Nicolas Maduro, the man handpicked by the late President Hugo Chavez as flag bearer of his “21st century socialism.”
Amid opposition claims of thousands of voting irregularities, the Obama administration and the Organization of American States (OAS) threw their support behind the recount call, urging the National Electoral Council (CNE) not to certify the results until the matter was resolved.
But the CNE – which the opposition views as skewed in favor of Chavez’ movement – went ahead and declared Maduro the winner, sparking anger among opposition supporters in the bitterly-divided country. Clashes between Chavistas and Capriles supporters in several parts of the country left at least seven people dead and many more injured.
Capriles announced plans for a mass protest Wednesday at the CNE offices in Caracas, prompting accusations by Maduro that the “fascist” opposition was fomenting a coup. The official AVN news agency quoted him as saying the plot was funded by the State Department.
Maduro said he would not allow the opposition protest demonstration to go ahead, and called on his own supporters to take to the streets.
Capriles then called off the planned rally, voicing concern that Maduro supporters would infiltrate the march and incite violence.
“In a responsible manner and recalling that this is a democratic struggle for recognition of the truth about what happened during the election, we are not mobilizing tomorrow,” he said. “Everybody, go home.”
Capriles distanced himself from violent protests, saying to supporters, “whoever is involved in violence is not part of this project, is not with me.” He also urged the government to enter dialogue aimed at ending the crisis.
Maduro meanwhile declared that “we defeated the coup,” but warned that opposition elements would “continue trying to destabilize” the country.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at a press briefing Tuesday the CNE’s decision to declare Maduro the winner without a recount was “difficult to understand, and they did not explain their haste in taking this decision.”
But he declined to say whether the U.S. was still calling for a recount despite the CNE’s certification of the result.
“Our position is that resolving these irregularities would have engendered more confidence in the Venezuelan people in the quality of this vote,” he said. “But in terms of where we go forward, I just don’t have anything more for you today.”
Ventrell also said the U.S. was “not making a judgment one way or another” on the result, but would continue to consult with the OAS and others.
Asked how the State Department would evaluate democracy in Venezuela, Ventrell replied, “We don’t give grades from this podium.”
Even if the election result stands, the outcome is a blow for Maduro and Chavez devotees, Heritage Foundation scholar Ray Walser wrote on Monday.
“Given the massive advantages enjoyed by the uncharismatic Maduro – loyalty to the dead leader, control over public-sector workers, virtual dominance of the media, the backing of senior military officials, etc. – the decline in support for the Chavista movement is significant and will translate into a weaker hand for Maduro within his party and less receptivity for the radical socialist agenda,” he argued.
Maduro’s coup allegations were reminiscent of Chavez, who over his 14 years in power until he died of cancer last month frequently accused the United States of plotting his overthrow – especially after he was temporarily unseated in 2002.
Chavez’ own abortive attempt to topple an elected president in a coup landed him in prison in 1992, six years before he won his first election.
Chavez third election victory – he beat Capriles last October by 12 percentage points – gave him a six-year term which began in January. Maduro is now scheduled to take office on Friday, to serve out that term.