Post-Chavez Venezuela Grows More, Not Less, Polarized

Apr 19, 2013
Originally published on April 19, 2013 6:37 am

Under the rule of its late president, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela became a nation sharply divided between those who supported his self-styled socialist revolution and those who opposed it.

But after a disputed presidential election in which Chavez's deputy was ruled the winner by a razor-thin margin, the country appears more polarized than ever.

Since Sunday's results, there have already been protests, eight deaths and angry claims from government officials that the opposition is trying to topple the government.

"This slice of the opposition that acts like they didn't have anything to do with it is the one behind the violence [on the streets]," says Nicolas Maduro, the interim president.

The epicenter of the anti-government struggle is Plaza Altamira in Caracas, the capital. Here, young people have once again taken to the streets to protest Maduro's win and the government's efforts to quickly certify it as free and fair.

The vote was so tight that they think their candidate, Henrique Capriles, won. Their hope had been that with Chavez gone — he died in March after a long battle with cancer — Capriles would usher in a post-Chavez era.

So people like Rafael Colmenares protested — not just the results, but that officials would not permit a recount of every single ballot, as Capriles demanded.

"We're more polarized than ever, but it's the government's fault," he says. "What's caused the most damage to the country is the hate that they've planted in the population. But we're part of the half of the population that's not with the government."

Ismer Mota, who supports the government, disagrees. He thinks those involved in the protests now — from the leaders to the people on the street — are the same ones who had a role in a failed 2002 coup against Chavez. He says the protesters are part of a plot to destabilize the government.

"They're looking for an excuse, the same ones who supported the coup, the ones who violated the constitution," Mota says.

Those opposing viewpoints are reflected in the nightly cacophony, when members of anti-government households bang on pots and pans as loudly as they can for an hour.

The government's response is to shoot off fireworks and play music from huge loudspeakers to drown out the racket.

Such a divide has been apparent for years. But under the charismatic Chavez, the government had a solid majority of supporters.

That's changed, Capriles told the nation this week. He took 7.3 million votes, or 49 percent of the electorate. That margin indicates that hundreds of thousands of voters who had been expected to vote for Maduro, as some pollsters had predicted, instead went for the opposition.

"There's no majority here," Capriles said. "Here there are two halves." He said that when people closely examine the numbers, they will see that Venezuela is "practically two equal sides."

So even though electoral officials certified Maduro as the winner, people are debating bitterly — in homes and offices, schools and the National Assembly, where opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said the Cuban government, which is close to Maduro, helped cover up voting irregularities.

Tania Diaz, from the ruling party, answered by calling Machado a "coward, irresponsible, criminal, scoundrel."

Jose Duarte, who owns a small, busy grocery store in Caracas, wants nothing to do with such debates. He has gone as far as banning customers from talking about politics. Until he did so, people would yell, shove and, on one occasion, even spit on each other.

"It's hate against those who have and those who don't, between those in government and government opponents," Duarte says. "There's hate on both sides. That's it."

Signs prohibiting talk of politics are posted throughout the store.

Mario Paez, a 63-year-old shopper, says he understands why Duarte put them up. He remembers the days when people from different political parties could still go out for dinner. But that has changed completely, he says.

"You just can't talk politics because the feelings now are so profound," Paez says. "There's a separation of ideals. One side can't get along with the other. It's something that's separating the country in two."

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