THE ATTEMPT by the followers of Hugo Chavez to install a successor to the dead caudillo through a one-sided election is faltering. Now the Venezuelan regime appears to be preparing to maintain itself in power through brute force — and the oil-producing country is headed for a crisis that demands the attention of the United States and Latin America’s democracies.
On Tuesday, Nicolas Maduro, the former bus driver and Cuban protege who was designated as Mr. Chavez’s successor, went on national television to announce that he would “not permit” a march Wednesday called by the opposition to support its call for a recount of votes in Sunday’s election. Promising to use “a strong hand” — a hoary phrase from Latin America’s history of dictatorship — Mr. Maduro spoke of protesters “filling [Caracas] with death and blood,” words that rang like a threat. The government said that seven people already had been killed in post-election clashes and claimed that a coup was being prepared.
In fact, if anyone is preparing a coup, it is Mr. Maduro and his Cuban advisers. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski has put forward a peaceful and reasonable demand: that an audit be undertaken of the suspect presidential vote count. Mr. Maduro himself said Sunday that he would agree to a recount — but on Monday the electoral commission he controls abruptly ratified a result that gave him a margin of 260,000 votes out of 14.8 million cast. The narrow outcome clearly shocked the Chavistas, who had already installed Mr. Maduro in the presidency by unconstitutional means; they expected that their domination of the media and orchestration of voting by state employees would produce an easy “victory” and legitimize the regime’s continuation.
In fact a majority of Venezuelans, including many former Chavez supporters, appear to be fed up with a “revolution” that has produced double-digit inflation, severe shortages of power and staple foods and one of the world’s highest murder rates. Mr. Maduro has offered no answers to these problems — only ludicrous claims that they are the product of conspiracies by the opposition and the United States. Amid signs that his movement may be splintering, Mr. Maduro appears to be preparing repressive measures that should be intolerable to members of the Organization of American States, who are bound by treaty to resist violations of democratic order.
Fortunately the Obama administration, which until recently was prematurely and unwisely courting Mr. Maduro, has questioned the quick certification of the election and supported the call for the recount; so has the government of Spain and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. The administration should begin coordinating with Mexico, Chile and other important Latin American democracies to prevent Mr. Maduro from killing his way into power.