One of the Hugo Chavez-era ministers retained in the new cabinet of Nicolas Maduro is Iris Varela, who holds the portfolio for Venezuela's rotting prison system. This morning, she repaid Maduro's vote of confidence in her by threatening to incarcerate Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who has been doggedly insisting that the votes cast in the April 14 presidential election, which Maduro won by a razor-thin margin of 1.8 percent, should be recounted.
In the days immediately following the vote, Venezuela was convulsed by protests alleging electoral fraud. Seven people were reported to have died and more than 60 injured in clashes the chavista regime immediately blamed on the opposition. Maduro himself accused opposition supporters of attacking health clinics run by the government, as well as the home of Tibisay Lucena, the president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), who called the election for Maduro in record time and then declared the results to be "irreversible."
Capriles repeatedly pointed out on his Twitter feed that no evidence was produced to support these or similar claims. He also called off a rally outside the CNE's headquarters in Caracas, citing his concern that government supporters would "infiltrate" the crowd and stir up violence that the opposition would then be held responsible for. In the end, Capriles settled for a partial recount of the vote that the CNE has already said will not change the election's outcome.
Capriles's decision to opt for prudence won him no favors with the regime. As Iris Varela made clear today, Capriles is being held personally responsible for the post-election violence. "We are preparing a cell for you (Capriles) where you will pay for your crimes," Varela growled ominously during a press conference.
Whether Varela's threat against Capriles will be implemented remains unclear. Its underlying purpose, though, is to intimidate the opposition into silence; and what better way to do so than by dangling the prospect of a prison sentence? As Julie Turkewitz reported in the Atlantic in February, Venezuelan prisons are known to be the worst in Latin America, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, and frequently run by brutal gang leaders. No opposition supporter entering one of these penitentiaries could reasonably hope to come out alive, let alone unharmed.
Another worrying signal for the opposition is the appointment of Miguel Rodriguez Torres as interior minister. Rodriguez Torres was most recently the head of SEBIN, the much-feared, Cuban-trained political police. Like Maduro, Rodriguez Torres is an orthodox chavista who brooks no dissent. His goal now will be to crack down not just on the current round of protests, but on the protests that Maduro's government is likely to face in the coming months as the economy continues to crumble.
Herein lies Capriles' main achievement: he has made a compelling case that any elections held under the auspices of the chavistas will be inherently unfair, and he has prepared the ground for a reinvigorated opposition that was thrown into despair last December, when the chavistas triumped in state elections.
At the same time, Capriles is wary of giving Maduro any opportunity to portray the opposition as American stooges, which may well explain why he hasn't called for international support. Since the election, Maduro has consistently accused the U.S. of "financing" the "violent acts" of the opposition. His foreign minister, Elias Jaua, has also warned that any sanctions that might be imposed by Washington on Caracas would be met in kind–but given that Venezuela desperately needs the revenue it receives from its export of 900,000 barrels of oil per day to the U.S., it's hard to take Jaua's comments seriously on this point.
As for the future of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, that remains an open question. President Obama's decision to call for a "constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government" following the death of Chavez disappointed many in the country's opposition circles, particularly as Maduro's assumption of the post of acting president was of questionable constitutional legitimacy. Yet in the aftermath of the election, the U.S. has been the only foreign government of any note to have withheld recognition of Maduro's government because of the more than 3,000 instances of electoral fraud documented by the opposition–among them the 564 polling stations where chavista activists were witnessed entering polling booths to "assist" voters, thus impacting around 1.5 million votes out of a total of 15 million.
Washington will be mindful that it is already isolated on Venezuela. Maduro's inauguration last Friday was attended by a slew of foreign leaders, among them Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Argentine President Christina Kirchner, and Chavez's close friend (and notorious electoral fraudster) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. In backing Maduro, all these leaders have signed up to the party line that any regime change in Venezuela will be the result of CIA interference. In the meantime, chavismo will step up its conquest of the institutions of a country that was, for much of the post-Second World War period, among the more democratic in Latin America.