Outside the Miraflores presidential palace late on Sunday night, Roman Schuello, 59, stood among the partying red-clad government supporters and sold them fake moustaches that looked like Nicolás Maduro’s. Hours earlier, Maduro had won Venezuela’s presidency.
“It’s the new fashion,” Roman said with a smile, pointing toward the moustaches that he sold for around 50 cents. “I’m selling loads. I’ll sell even more over the next few days.”
Despite his death just over a month ago, Hugo Chavez’s Revolution looks set to continue, although without the kind of popular mandate that el Comandante and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela held in the 14 years since they’ve controlled the oil-rich South American country.
The margin between the Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, and his decade-younger opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski was just 235,000 votes, or 1.6 percentage points.
Chavez beat Capriles back in October by a 10.8 percent margin. Maduro’s victory Sunday gives the Chavismo government a far more tenuous position.
“The people don’t love you,” Capriles said to Maduro in a televised address just after the results were announced on Sunday. “We won't recognize a result until every vote has been counted... If you were illegitimate before,” he said, directed at Maduro, “now you are more so.”
The opposition claimed to have a list of more than 3,200 irregularities, from gunshots to illegal reopening of polling stations. Images have appeared on social networks that appear to show ballot boxes discarded in the streets.
Some voters on Sunday were not hopeful that their ballot paper would be counted fairly.
“I voted for Capriles, but I’m not going to fool myself,” said Luisa Fontiveros, a 28-year-old social worker immediately after voting in a wealthy area of Caracas. “Capriles will win, but the electoral council won’t recognize it.”
Caracas pollster Luis Vicente León suggested before the election that should he win, Maduro would face problems in “six months.”
“He is no Chávez,” said León. “And he has a lot of enemies.”
Now that Maduro has won by such a small majority, León said he expects "negotiation or conflict.”
One enemy could well be Diosdado Cabello, a military strongman who currently serves as the head of the country’s National Assembly. He has kept quiet up until this point, keen for Chavismo to win the bigger debate about the coutnry’s ideology and state control of most industries. But, many analysts see him as a threat to Maduro’s flimsy grasp on Chavez’s throne.
Government turmoil and political distraction could lead to more violence in what is already one of the most deadly countries in the world.
With the smaller margin, the opposition is likely to assert itself as a greater political force and take any opportunity to pummel the government, something that opposition leaders never managed to do since Chavez took power.
“The eagle doesn't chase flies,” Chavez often said when an opposition leader questioned him in public. They weren’t worthy of his attention or debate. That is no longer the case.
“If Capriles wins,” said 21-year-old student Mariusca Montes, whose biggest concern in Venezuela was the horrific levels of crime, “he has a huge job ahead of him. But we’ll help him.”
Capriles is likely to need that help more than ever now, as he has finally made a dent in Chavismo and also to the outlook for the country.
The short campaign was filled with farce. This came to a surreal apex when Maduro said that Chavez appeared to him as a small bird. “It sang and I responded with a song and the bird took flight, circled around once, and then flew away,” he said on state television. “I felt the spirit and blessings of Comandante Chavez.” He later invoked a 16th-century curse on those who did not vote for him.
Oswaldo Ramirez, 26, worked for the state communications company and bought a moustache from Schuello while celebrating outside Miraflores, drinking with friends. “The moustache is a symbol of Maduro!” he said, before spouting off a list of Chavista slogans. “Long live Chavez, long live Maduro, forever,” he screamed. “Long live Venezuela.”
(Photos by Girish Gupta)
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