Venezuelans are polarized in post-election crisis

April 18, 2013

People have spit on each other in the meat section, and one woman had to be stopped from throwing a soft drink at another in the checkout line.

Grocery store owner Jose Duarte finally had enough when a customer berated a shopper in military uniform for serving the socialist government, which on Friday is inaugurating interim leader Nicolas Maduro as president while his adversaries plan protests.

So Duarte, owner of the Li Car Ch market since 28 years, put up signs a few weeks ago: “Talking politics is prohibited in this locale.”

Although the objective is to keep his shop safe, he was getting at a larger point: Can’t we just try to get along? But since Sunday’s bitterly disputed presidential election, which the government says Maduro won by a whisker, Venezuelans on both sides seem to be moving even further apart.

The oil-rich country, an important supplier of crude to the United States but also Washington’s chief antagonist in the region, has in essence become two countries — starkly, angrily and, sometimes, violently at odds. And since opposition leader Henrique Capriles’s refusal to concede to Maduro, Venezuela has appeared almost equally divided in a way it has not been since the Hugo Chavez era began in 1999.

“There’s a division of hate,” Duarte said. “Hate among those who have and don’t have. Hate between those in government and those who are not in government. There is hate everywhere.”

With Venezuela mired in a political crisis and street protests that officials say have left eight people dead since Monday, the two sides in this country’s drama are bracing for more confrontation, convinced that their position is the right one.

“Here there is no majority, there are two halves of a country,” said Capriles, 40, a lawyer and the governor of economically influential Miranda state. “And when we look at the numbers, we’re talking about two practically equal sides — numerically, two sides of the same size.”

For his part, Maduro blames Capriles for the violence. “This slice of the opposition that acts like they didn’t have anything to do with it is the one behind the violence,” he said.

The polarization has been apparent for years, as it was a central strategy of Chavez, who ruled for 14 tempestuous years until his death last month. But many say the split is so great now that an escalation in violence could pose insurmountable obstacles to bridging the divide.

In the tense hours since electoral authorities declared Maduro the winner, saying he had edged out Capriles by less than two percentage points, opposition protesters have clashed with the National Guard. Residents who oppose the government bang pots and pans in the streets through the night.

Capriles has called Maduro “illegitimate” and charged that he is taking orders from the Castro brothers in Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. Maduro, a 50-year-old apparatchik who reneged on a pledge that he would permit a vote recount, said he will not recognize his adversary as the governor of Miranda state.

With the opposition demanding a vote-by-vote recount of paper ballots, Maduro responded by banning protests in downtown Caracas and warned of further action in the face of dissent.

“We’re going to use a hard hand against fascism and against those who want to assault democracy,” he said.

The bitter stalemate is manifested in the streets, in universities and in people’s living rooms, where some family members from opposing camps have stopped talking to one another.

“I avoid problems by not visiting my family,” said Luis Torres, 66. “We speak by phone — been that way more or less for two years.”

The divisions are particularly raw in the National Assembly, where an object was thrown at opposition lawmaker William Davila on Wednesday, causing a gash that required eight stitches.

After another government opponent, Maria Corina Machado, facetiously said that the government should ask Cuban President Raul Castro for permission for a recount, ruling-party lawmakers answered with catcalls of “fascist, fascist, fascist!”

“That’s the face of fascism,” Tania Diaz, a congresswoman from Maduro’s socialist party, said to Machado. “Coward, irresponsible, criminal, scoundrel!”

The assembly’s president, Diosdado Cabello, a force in the ruling party, then banned the opposition from giving speeches as retribution for not recognizing Maduro as the legitimate president.

For Chavistas — the diehard supporters of Chavez, who died after a long battle with cancer — the opposition is made up of people who are little more than American puppets solely interested in pillaging the country and keeping the poor down.

“Chavez said, ‘No more. We’re all the same,’ and that’s how the polarization began,” said Ismer Mota, a pro-government activist. “Here those who had the money — the businessmen, the big honchos — they were friends of the poor only when they were being served by them.”

The high-octane atmosphere of the streets is also found at the Li Car Ch market.

Jimmy Ponce, 40, who sells cheese, has seen people arguing at high decibels. Some have even come to blows.

“Once a man was accused of being a Cuban, and they had to separate them,” Ponce said. “A woman spit on him. He hit her. They separated them, and then she left.”

As she shopped for meat, Yelitza Alvarez, 41, said she simply won’t talk to anyone she doesn’t know.

“When things are really heated up, I try to stay on the sidelines,” she said. “There are many veils, so you don’t try to change opinions. They don’t like it.”

So Alvarez had no problem with the signs banning political discourse in the store. But Soria Costa, 50, who was shopping for fruit, said the prohibition violated her free-speech rights.

“They want to close your mouth, sew your mouth shut,” she said. “No one shuts me up!”

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