Despite blowing a 20-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning, ALBA relief pitcher Nicolás Maduro narrowly escaped total humiliation last night when Venezuela’s National Electoral Council mercifully called the final out against a rallying opponent and awarded victory to the handpicked political heir to Hugo Chávez.
Challenger Henrique Capriles has demanded a full recount—including all absentee ballots—after the final tally put him within 235,000 votes of Maduro, who claimed victory with an undernourished margin of 50.6% to 49.1%.
Capriles, who cited some 3,200 campaign violations, called Maduro’s victory “illegitimate” and said Chávez’s political movement—the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (ALBA)—is “the big loser today.”
He may be right. And that’s bad news for Nicaragua.
At the very least, Maduro’s underwhelming victory demonstrates how quickly ALBA has atrophied without the muscle of its founding strongman. The dramatic deceleration of the Bolivarian Revolution in the first month after Chávez’s death does not bode well for the future of Venezuelan cooperation for Nicaragua—especially megaprojects such as the unbuilt $6.6 billion oil refinery in León. Maduro, forced to face mounting political, economic and social problems at home, will probably be too busy dealing with his own domestic issues to spend much time worrying about Nicaragua’s. The current ALBA relationship, which has netted more than $2.6 billion for the Sandinistas over the past six years, is likely to continue on autopilot in the short term. But without Chávez’s foot on the accelerator, the relationship could start to sputter.
The legitimacy of Maduro’s win—aided by all the muscle of the Venezuelan state, the political momentum of the past decade and the emotional boost of Chávez’s ghost, which appeared to the candidate in the form of a little bird—will be determined by the recount. But even if the current math holds, it certainly appears to be a pyrrhic victory for the incumbent.
Chávez, in his dying breaths, managed to defeat Capriles by 10 points just six months ago. He then bequeathed a 20 point lead to Maduro last March, when the founder of “21st Century Socialism” finally succumbed to cancer. Even then, Maduro—whose clumsy and comical campaign featured conversations with birds, religious posturing and wild accusations of international conspiracies—almost managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The official Maduro presidency, which is scheduled to begin with his inauguration on April 19, already has the trappings of a bad movie sequel that attempts to rehash an old storyline without the talent, excitement or budget that made the original a hit. (Like Grease 2, only without the musical numbers).
Facing a divided nation on a wobbly political footing that most likely has others in his party whispering behind his back, Maduro has made his job as president even more challenging than it needed to be by launching a variety of unproven accusations during his campaign. If Maduro wants to appear like a serious world leader and not a paranoid psychotic, he needs to start providing some evidence to back his claims that the U.S. inflicted Chávez with cancer, that murderous conspiracies are being plotted in Washington, San Salvador and Bogotá, and that the CIA was planning to whack his opponent to create chaos in Venezuela.
When he’s done sorting that out, Maduro can start to tackle the more serious challenge of leading a deeply divided nation with no mandate and an opposition leader who has more political capital than he does.
While Sandinista leaders put on a show of triumphalism in Nicaragua, the Maduro meltdown has got to be an unsettling moment for Ortega’s government, which has benefited to the tune of more than $500 million per annum in ALBA largess.
Now, more than ever, Nicaragua needs to chart a reasoned and moderate plan for economic development and a sensible and independent foreign policy that is not tethered so tightly to Venezuela.
The stormy seas facing Maduro’s presidency will likely produce some choppy conditions for Nicaragua. Luckily, President Ortega is no stranger to navigating his way around political upheaval. But he’ll need all of his political acumen to keep a steady hand on the helm so Nicaragua can continue to sail forward on other trade winds after the six-year gust from ALBA eventually dies down.