Who Really Controls Venezuela?

Even though Venezuelan authorities have promised to conduct an electronic audit of their April 14 presidential election, the outcome is not seriously in doubt: The National Electoral Council (CNE) has indicated that Nicolás Maduro’s paper-thin victory will be allowed to stand, with one CNE official declaring the election results “irreversible.” This was drearily predictable: The CNE is controlled by Hugo Chávez loyalists -- as are the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the military, and the police -- and the 50-year-old Maduro was Chávez’s designated successor. Countries across Latin America have recognized his victory, and so has the Organization of American States.

Shamefully, Latin American officials recognized Maduro as president before there was adequate time to investigate the thousands of irregularities documented by Venezuela’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). According to MUD presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, those irregularities included (1) thousands of damaged voting machines, (2) hundreds of thousands of dead people on the voter rolls, and (3) the expulsion of opposition election observers from 283 different polling stations. Capriles is understandably dubious that the CNE audit will be conducted fairly or honestly. “We will not accept a joke audit,” he said on April 24. “It’s time to get serious.” A day later, Capriles announced that he was taking his fight to the Venezuelan court system.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been a reliable bastion of chavismo ever since 2004 (when Chávez implemented a court-packing scheme), and its chief justice has already declared that it will not be possible to perform a manual recount. Meanwhile, the government is busy denouncing Capriles as a “fascist murderer” and threatening to imprison him. It is also stepping up its attacks on civil liberties, as evidenced by the recent arrests of a U.S. filmmaker and a former Venezuelan general.

Let’s assume, for now, that Maduro will remain president. (He was inaugurated on April 19.) The question we should be asking is: Who really controls Venezuela?

After all, Maduro will have to deal with competing factions of chavistas, one of which is led by his biggest internal rival, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello. He will have to manage relations between the official Venezuelan armed forces and the so-called Bolivarian militia, a civilian outfit with tens of thousands of heavily armed fighters. For that matter, he will have to appease the radical, slum-based street gangs that supported Chávez fanatically. As the New York Times has reported, there is “festering tension between military leaders and pro-Chávez groups who view some in the armed forces as overstepping their authority, illicitly accumulating fortunes, or simply as incompetent managers.”