- - Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The shocking, razor-thin result in Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela demonstrates that the future of the late President Hugo Chavez’s movement is anything but certain and that the country could be heading into another period of political crises not seen since 2002, when Chavez was briefly ousted from power.

The larger-than-life Chavez, who died of cancer last month, had anointed Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor, and the conventional wisdom was that the sympathy vote, massive social spending, and lopsided electoral playing field would guarantee an easy victory for Chavismo.

It was not to be. Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the last election to Chavez by 11 percentage points, nearly pulled off an epic upset before falling just short with 49.1 percent of the vote to Mr. Maduro’s 50.7 percent.

Mr. Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. “We are not going to recognize the result,” he said, “until every vote is counted, one by one.”

He also directed fire at the hapless Mr. Maduro, who tried to smear Mr. Capriles during the campaign with homophobic slurs and other insults. To Mr. Maduro, he said, “The big loser today is you, you and what you represent.”

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more disastrous scenario for the former union leader and bus driver. All eyes were on him during the campaign to gauge whether he had the political heft to fill Chavez’s shoes. Instead, it is clear that his lackluster performance, his incendiary charge that the United States gave Chavez cancer and his head-scratching claim that Chavez came to visit him as a little bird convinced fewer and fewer Venezuelans that he was up to the job.

Now, the damaged Mr. Maduro must not only lead an unwieldy coalition, but he must do so at the same time he attempts to deal with the fallout from the ticking economic time bomb that Chavez has bequeathed his country. Among the threats are soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electrical blackouts, shortages of basic goods and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Moreover, in addition to contending with a reinvigorated opposition, Mr. Maduro has already been put on notice by officials within his own movement that his actions will be closely watched. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long seen as a Maduro rival within Chavismo, said of the election:

“These results require deep self-criticism. Let’s turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chavez] in danger.”

Mr. Maduro has already rejected any notion of a recount, evidently concluding that it’s much more dangerous to the continuation of Chavismo than tackling Venezuela’s myriad challenges dogged with questions about his legitimacy.

In fact, it is likely that Mr. Maduro will instead seek a rapprochement with the United States, trying to find the legitimacy in Washington that Venezuelan voters denied him this past weekend. The Obama administration, which has sought to reduce the U.S. visibility during the election, should have none of it. Not only did Mr. Maduro use the campaign to accuse the United States of giving Chavez cancer, he also expelled additional personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and charged that former U.S. officials were attempting to assassinate either him or Mr. Capriles (depending on the day).

He is someone the United States can neither trust, nor do business with. In fact, the administration has already gotten off on the right foot by endorsing Mr. Capriles’ demand for a recount. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, an audit of the vote count “appears an important, prudent and necessary step to ensure that all Venezuelans have confidence in these results.”

What happens in Venezuela matters to the United States, because of its prodigious oil and gas reserves, its relationship with Iran, and because it sits astride active drug-transit lanes leading to U.S. borders. Certainly, American interests are best served by having a friendlier government in Caracas. Since this does not appear to be the case, however, Washington should exert newfound leverage against a weakened Chavez successor to make sure U.S. interests are defended.

Jose R. Cardenas is the former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.