Opposition protests turned deadly yesterday, with at least seven people having been reported killed and over 61 others injured as opposition groups reportedly burned the homes of PSUV leaders, community hospitals, and mercales (subsidized grocery stores), attacked Cuban doctors, attacked state and community media stations, and threatened CNE president Tibisay Lucena and other officials. Violence is likely to continue today, as both Capriles and Maduro have called for their supporters to demonstrate in the streets. Maduro and other senior government officials have condemned the acts and have warned that the opposition is attempting a coup d'etat. PSUV legislators have suggested they may pursue legal action against Capriles for promoting instability.
The campaign of violent protest, in conjunction with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' refusal to recognize the election results, represents the first major extra-legal destabilization attempt by Venezuela's opposition since the failed coup in 2002 and oil strike in 2003. It is also significant in that the U.S. is backing Capriles' position, thereby helping to provoke conflict in Venezuela — even though most Latin American nations and many other governments around the world have congratulated Maduro on his victory and called for the results to be respected.
The opposition strategy is predictably divisive, however. Factions within Venezuela's opposition have long opposed extra-legal and especially violent methods of attempting to force change. Some in the opposition have also hinted that Capriles' cries of "fraud" are not credible. Opposition-aligned CNE rector Vicente Diaz has said that, while he supports a full audit of the votes, he has no doubt in that the results given by the CNE are correct. Diaz made comments to this effect on opposition station Globovision yesterday; the TV hosts then quickly concluded the interview.
Opposition blogger Francisco Toro, meanwhile, has criticized the opposition strategy of crying fraud, noting that, if any such fraud exists, it will be found in the 54 percent audit of the votes that the CNE conducts as a routine verification for each election. Toro writes:
Listen, I understand how "count every vote" is an appealing slogan: bumperstickable and easy to understand and hard to resist.
It's also a red herring: the evidence of fraud, if fraud happened, isn't some exotic species out there that you have to go out and hunt. The evidence of fraud, if fraud did happen, is already in the thousands of paper-based hand-tally reports from the "hot audit" now in the hands of opposition witnesses all over the country. That hot audit has [been] done as a matter of routine in a randomly-selected 54% of all voting tables on election night after every vote since 2005, and includes at least one table in every voting center in the country. MUD's job now — and it's not a trivial one — is to put all those tally-sheets under one roof, key them into a computer, and check.
It is unclear exactly how such fraud could have been committed, given the safeguards in Venezuela's electoral process, and few media outlets seem interested in pressing the Capriles campaign for answers.
Foreign media reports, while downplaying the extent of the violence in opposition protests, have also noted that Capriles and the members of the opposition who back him risk delegitimizing themselves by refusing to accept the results and waging a protest campaign in response. Reuters reported today:
The strategy could backfire if demonstrations turn into prolonged disturbances, such as those the opposition led between 2002 and 2004, which sometimes blocked roads for days with trash and burning tires and annoyed many Venezuelans.
A protracted fight also could renew questions about the opposition's democratic credentials on the heels of their best showing in a presidential election, and just as Capriles has consolidated himself as its leader.
"Where are the opposition politicians who believe in democracy?" Maduro said on Tuesday.
It is also noteworthy that three opposition legislators, Ricardo Sanchez, Carlos Vargas, and Andres Avelino, publicly broke with Capriles last month, decrying what they described as a plan to stoke instability by refusing to accept the election results, and use students as "cannon fodder" in a violent protest campaign. While this did get some scattered attention in Venezuela at the time, it was regrettably ignored by major foreign media outlets.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Follow Beeton on Twitter @Dan_Beeton. This article was first published in CEPR's Americas Blog on 16 April 2013 under a Creative Commons license.