Nicolas Maduro celebrates with his wife, Cilia Flores, after being declared the winner of Venezuela's presidential election (Reuters).
Only six weeks in the grave, and Hugo Chávez’s socialist dream is fading fast. Last night, the chosen successor of “el commandante”, Nicolas Maduro, won Venezuela’s presidential election, but only by a whisker.
Maduro – “the self-proclaimed son of Chavez” – got 50.7 per cent of the vote, versus 49.1 per cent for Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader. That compares to an 11 point win for Chavez in October’s presidential election. Capriles has refused to accept the result until the votes are fully audited.
Assume, for now, that the result stands and no evidence is found of jiggery-pokery. That is still no kind of mandate for Maduro and Venezuela’s ruling socialist party. This is a country split down the middle. Such a close result will also undermine Maduro’s standing within the ruling socialist party. The 50-year old former foreign minister and bus driver will struggle to reconcile chavismo’s various factions, many of whom may think they could do a better job. But the country is in a mess, whoever comes to govern it. Read more
(JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
On April 14, Venezuelans will choose a president for the second time in less than a year. Hugo Chávez won October’s election; following his death, it’s expected that his chosen heir – former vice-president and acting President Nicolás Maduro – will be voted in. But even if Maduro wins comfortably, the presidency is a poisoned chalice. Here are six reasons why.
CHAVISMO When Chávez died, thousands of ordinary people flooded the streets to mourn. They spoke of him in familial terms – as a father, a protector, a benefactor. Their affection reflected the fact that Chávez’s rule brought about material change in the lives of many, particularly the poorest – he cut poverty by half, and increased access to healthcare and education. But it’s worth noting that other countries in the region made similar social progress without the divisions that Chavismo generated.
While there was growing opposition to Chávez – in October, his rival Henrique Capriles secured 44 per cent of the vote – his supporters loved him with a devotion that will be hard for any leader to replicate. That has repercussions for his political movement. “‘Chavismo’ would face a far more uncertain future without the charismatic former tank commander at its head; it was always a highly personalised political project,” John Paul Rathbone noted in December.
The final dividend of Chávez’s charisma will probably be the election of his chosen heir, as even voters uncertain about Maduro are swung by loyalty to the wishes of their former leader. In a video for the New York Times, Simon Romero asks an 80-year-old lady who she will vote for. “Well naturally, this last request of my president who pleaded from his heart that we vote for the one he chose, to vote for Maduro.” Read more
The optimism of the early Chávez years is fading (Getty)
Landing in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main international airport, is always a bit like stepping through the looking glass no matter where you’re coming from. But arriving from neighbouring Colombia is a stark reminder of just how far the fortunes of these two countries have diverged over the past 15 years or so.
At the turn of the century, Colombia was under the cosh – from the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, often all at the same time. Bogotá was an austere, gloomy place. The only way seemed to be down. Today, its refurbished El Dorado airport is all gleaming efficiency – perhaps the slickest entrepôt on the continent. The capital’s streets are thrumming, the Colombian personality remains upbeat and can-do, democracy is effervescent (and bumpy, like all healthy democracies), inflation is low, and while the country’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas is sometimes a halting process, government security officials have a spring in their step. I suspect the talks are going far better than many believe and a deal could be possible in a number of months. Peace could then see the economy really take off and the country properly attack its glaring inequalities and income disparities.
In Venezuela everything is al reves – the opposite. Read more
They say that a bad agreement is better than a good fight. But not, it seems, in Bogotá. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos launched a formal peace process with Colombia’s Farc guerrillas. This sparked hopes that the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict might finally draw to a close. As the Farc has also funded itself with drug-smuggling (although it denies this), the process has other international implications too. The talks, held in Havana, have already proved a hard slog. But over the Easter holidays, they suffered a series of unexpected and damaging attacks – not from the guerrillas themselves, as you might expect, but from two former Colombian presidents.
Álvaro Uribe, who led an all out offensive on the Farc while president from 2002 until 2010, fired off a series of withering tweets, lambasting the peace process as an attempt to “cozy up to terrorists”. Then Andrés Pastrana, who ironically led a failed peace process in 1998, joined the fray, saying that Mr Santos had no mandate to seek peace. Further souring the mood, both former presidents attacked the person and family of Mr Santos. To outsiders, this can look odd as he served with a distinction in both Pastrana’s government (as finance minister) and Uribe’s (as defence minister). Either way, the attacks have fed growing pessimism that the peace talks will succeed. Many Colombians were anyway sceptical at the outset. Read more
Stunned, then overjoyed (Getty)
By Guy Dinmore and Giulia Segreti
The first pope from the Americas, the first from the Jesuit order, the first to name himself Francis … the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio signals a break with the past on many fronts for a Roman Catholic Church in desperate need of renewal. Yet he is also regarded as a theological conservative in the mold of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and at the relatively advanced age of 76 he will have to overcome fears that he too will be a transitional pope.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s normally unflappable spokesman and a fellow Jesuit, was just as stunned at the choice as the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “Personally I am shocked that I have a Jesuit pope,” he told reporters, noting that Jesuits usually eschew positions of authority. He added: “He had the courage to pick a name that has never been chosen. It expresses simplicity and evangelical testimony.”
Rebecca Rist, an expert in papal history at Reading University, said the choice of Francis – echoing both the 13th-century St Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier, one of the first followers of the Jesuits – signalled that the new pope would emphasise poverty and reform. Furthermore, by choosing a name never used before he was indicating “something new – that he would not emulate a predecessor”. Read more
Lets just say that the idea of a post-Chávez rapprochement between the US and Venezuela did not get off to a great start.
Even before the death of Hugo Chávez had been formally announced on Tuesday, two US military officials were expelled for “planning to destabilize the country”.
Vice-president and heir apparent Nicolás Maduro then promised an investigation into the prospect that Venezuela’s “historical enemies” had induced Mr Chávez’ terminal cancer. There had been “too many historical cases” of such under-hand assassinations, he warned. Read more
It is a common error in politics to underestimate your adversary. Ever since Hugo Chávez fell ill from cancer two years ago, many imagined that his rule and his oil-fuelled socialist revolution would also end with his death, undermined by its own prodigious inefficiency and corruption. But now that the Venezuelan president has actually died, it no longer quite looks that way.
Chávez is now bound for mythology. In the imagination of his mourning supporters, he may come to occupy a space similar to Che Guevara’s – another martyr of the revolutionary left, albeit one without as large a cheque book. Indeed, Chávez’s early death is likely to prolong “chavismo” for a few more years rather than bring it to an abrupt end. Read more
Peña Nieto: taking on the old guard (Getty)
Elba Esther Gordillo encapsulates everything that is wrong with the “old Mexico”. The optimistic view of her arrest on Tuesday night, after the 68-year old union leader decamped from a private flight from San Diego, is that it shows what the “new Mexico” might become – a country where nobody is untouchable and the rule of law reigns. The cynical view is that it shows the government of Enrique Peña Nieto pursuing Mexican politics-as-usual: anyone who gets in the president’s way will be metaphorically decapitated and their head stuck on a pike as a warning to others.
Either way, Gordillo, a.k.a. “La Maestra”, is one of the most loathsome figures in Mexican politics. The head of the 1.5m teachers union, the largest in Latin America, has long been a byword for corruption, influence peddling and old-school clientelist politics. Yet although accusations have been brought against her before, no charges have ever been pressed. Now, they have. Read more
Last Sunday morning, “El Niño Verde” – as Jorge Emilio González, a young Mexican senator, is known – was driving down a central thoroughfare in Mexico City in his Mercedes Benz. When the police stopped him for a breathalyzer test, the gallant young rake protested, and gave a false name. But the police insisted, whereupon the bodyguards of the 40-year old senator for the state of Quintana Roo jumped out of their car, and threatened the hapless cops. Normally, this story would be of no transcendence whatsoever – just another run-of-the-mill tale of corruption and the impunity of power. But the local press have leapt on the story with glee – perhaps because it is a telling, and may be even hopeful, vignette of the state of modern Mexico.
To describe “El Niño Verde” as a politician probably stretches the definition of the word, although politics runs in the family. His grandfather was a senator and one-time presidential candidate. His father then founded Mexico’s “Green Party” – another misnomer, although it does explains González’s nickname, which literally means “the green boy”. In one infamous incident in 2004, González was filmed in conversation with a property developer who wanted his help, for a price, to facilitate planning permission to build a hotel in an ecologically protected area near the tourist resort of Cancun. There are other far more tawdry tales that have since attached to this clearly unpleasant young man. And, each time, he has managed to wriggle free, exercising the impunity that he long enjoyed as a member of an old political clan. Read more
Police outside the premises of Pemex on January 31 (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
Accidents happen, and Latin America has suffered two major accidents this past week: the first, a night club fire in Brazil on Sunday morning, the second, an explosion at Pemex’s headquarters in Mexico City on Thursday afternoon.
Many innocent people died at both; those are the awful human consequences. But both accidents will have political consequences too. Although it may sound callous, these may help speed the reform programs of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, and Enrique Peña Nieto, her Mexican counterpart.
Ms Rousseff, midway through her term, is seeking to root out corruption in Brazil and improve infrastructure before the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. To political opponents or vested interests, she can now say: just look at the 230 people who died in the Kiss Night Club in Santa Maria. Do you want a repeat? It’s time to call time on shoddy building regulations and civil service corruption that allows such infringements to go unheeded. Read more