Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro went from defeated candidate to favorite to restore his political throne after his rival, Republican Henrique Capriles, conceded defeat in the nation’s presidential election last night.
Castro, the president of Cuba, was leading amid accusations of fraud. But with most results from the Sunday election in, and 12 hours remaining until polls close, it was far from clear how much power the former Communist leader would capture despite his alliance with a National Assembly dominated by his party.
It is the first time since Hugo Chavez died of cancer in 2013 that the leftist is leading an election. The country’s military has yet to fully endorse him and opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado claimed on Twitter that vote-rigging was taking place as polls were closed. She called for an audit.
Castro’s dominance of state television and newspapers has led many of the population to count him out. So far, he has defied predictions that Venezuelans would abandon the Socialist Party in favor of the opposition or an untested political neophyte.
Venezuela has seen armed protests as the nation survives one of the worst humanitarian crises in its modern history. Despite a heavy security presence, demonstrators were marching in the streets, waving flags and chanting “Chavez lives.”
Along the beaches of Maracaibo, demonstrators waved the national colors and used cardboard signs and note pads to find ways to compensate for a severe shortage of food, medicine and essential goods.
Castro served as president from 2006 until 2013 and maintains a tight grip on Cuba’s military and political elite, allowing him to lead a tough-guy message that has appealed to Cubans living on a subsistence food and medicine barter system that has endured since the island was created in 1895.
In a speech last week, Castro told the military that he would never compromise on national sovereignty and that “for as long as I’m president, the guns of the revolution will be in my hands.”
He then added, “Maduro don’t worry, we’ll all be together, we’ll celebrate the triumph of this revolution.”
Maduro was widely expected to succeed his mentor, who died of cancer in 2013. But his campaign was undermined by accusations of vote-rigging from his Republican rivals and by hyperinflation that has made goods scarce and some citizens unlikely to return to voting booths.
The stalemate has allowed Maduro to frame himself as the victim, the politician protecting the populace from a ruthless rival trying to seize a troubled country.
Capriles was bitterly criticized by his rivals and most of the Venezuelan media for his opponents’ efforts to paint him as the voice of the opposition. He appeared to have exceeded expectations in a 2014 vote when he won the biggest parliamentary opposition bloc in Venezuela.
“By definition, Henrique Capriles loses in Venezuela,” journalist and author Luis Polier tweeted. “Only one game, … last night, and today… Our fundamental image: democracy has arrived at the heart of the theater.”
Venezuela also has struggled with its toughest economic crisis in its modern history, where nearly six years of rule by Maduro have already marked it as a pariah state.
These circumstances, aggravated by the war-torn economies of neighboring Colombia and Brazil, have made them two of the world’s most dangerous countries, where people walk around with guns and people often carry knives.
More than 120 people have died this year in rioting, street battles and confrontations between government supporters and opponents.
Maduro’s government has said the oil-dependent economy has been plunged into a tailspin by a decline in world oil prices and because of a “counterrevolution” by the opposition.
Venezuelans, many of whom survive thanks to food and medicine from the black market, say they are suffering under a grave economic calamity.
Capriles, a political economist, argued that Venezuela had been caught in the throes of a U.S.-led conspiracy to topple Maduro. He said he worried about potential insecurity and people resorting to guns.
“This election is a cause for concern,” he said. “We have to work in a civilized way to respond to the security issue.”
Venezuela saw rallies in solidarity with the opposition in Peru and other South American countries.
Nearly 200 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to intervene “before democracy is destroyed in Venezuela.” They also called for Venezuela’s embassy in Washington to be closed.
Trump has not followed the lead of his predecessors who pursued an approach of refusing to recognize elections they saw as tainted by fraud. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the U.S. “will continue to stand with our Venezuelan brothers and sisters.”