What a Maduro Presidency Means for Venezuela, Cuba and the U.S.

Election Results are under Dispute in Venezuela

April 16, 2013, 11:55 AM

April 16, 2012— -- Earlier this week, election officials friendly to acting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro rejected a recount of Sunday's presidential vote, sealing the victory for Hugo Chávez's former protégé.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles had argued for a nationwide recount, pointing to hundreds of reported voting irregularities on Election Day. Just under 300,000 votes separated him from Maduro, the vice president under Chávez. But the National Electoral Council (CNE), whose directors are mostly allies of Maduro's and Chávez' ruling socialist party, dismissed the request, arguing that a partial audit on Election Day had turned up no problems – and that Venezuela's electronic voting system does not make mistakes.

Capriles and many of his supporters still do not recognize Maduro as a legitimate president, and are still pushing for a recount. But Monday's decision by the CNE makes it very likely that Maduro will pick up permanently where Chávez left off after his death from cancer last month.

What will a Maduro presidency mean for Venezuela, Cuba and the United States? Here are the basics you need to know.

What it means for Venezuela

Maduro is taking over a country that is beset by high crime rates and serious food shortages.

Inflation is expected to exceed 30 percent this year, and Venezuela's socialist government recently had to devaluate the country's currency by 40 percent.

These problems are personal for most Venezuelans, and Maduro, who has been declared the election's winner by a razor-thin margin, will be under intense pressure to solve them.

The new president has two ways out of this mess, says Luis Vicente León, a pollster and political analyst. In one scenario, it's possible Maduro may make deals with private companies that can help alleviate problems like food shortages.

Such deals could include a loosening on price controls that currently discourage companies from producing goods, and more flexible foreign exchange controls, which would make it easier for companies to import goods into the country.

At the same time, Maduro would try to pander to his more ideological supporters by keeping up a radical discourse in which he talks about defending the country against imperialism, and defending people against Venezuela's "oligarchy."

The difference between Maduro's public discourse and how he deals with the private sector behind the scenes is what makes this the "bipolar" route, according to León.

León warns, however, that Maduro might also choose to embark on a more "radical" presidency.

In this scenario, Maduro would continue to use Venezuela's already diminished private sector as scapegoats for food shortages and other economic problems.

Chávez ruled this way during much of his presidency, blaming food shortages on "speculators," for example, and power outages on dark forces who were attempting to "sabotage" his socialist revolution.

Which route Maduro will decide to take could depend also on the future of Venezuela's socialist faction, in which radical and centrist leaders will continue to jockey for control of the party.

"With Chavez gone, it'll be interesting to see how Maduro deals with smaller parties in his coalition, that are frustrated by the dominance of the socialist party," said Gustavo Hernandez, a blogger for the Venezuelan politics site, Caracas Chronicles.

What it means for the United States

Maduro took an aggressive tone against the United States during the last months of Chávez's life, suggesting that the U.S. had poisoned the former Venezuelan president and caused his cancer. Just hours before announcing Chavez's death, Maduro also expelled two U.S. military attachés from Venezuela, accusing them of espionage and of plotting to "destabilize" Venezuela.

Most analysts however, believe that these attacks against the U.S. were part of a plan to boost Maduro's popularity by unifying his supporters against a foreign "enemy."

Now that the elections are over, there is some hope that Maduro might want to normalize relations with the U.S., which has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since 2010.

"I don't see what he has to gain by having a bad relationship with the U.S., other than rallying Venezuelans around a nationalist kind of appeal," said William LeoGrande, a professor of International Relations and Latin American politics at American University. "That's good for the election but it's not too practical once the election is over."

Difficulties in the Venezuela-U.S. relationship are mostly constrained to the diplomatic arena, as the country continues to sell oil to U.S. refineries, for much needed funds.

But a recent report by The New York Times also suggests that this could change under Maduro's leadership. The Times reported on Sunday that Maduro handed a handwritten note this weekend to former U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, who was in Venezuela as an election observer. In the note, Maduro said that he wanted to "normalize" relations with the U.S., and wanted Richardson, who was also the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N, to help. But then, after the election, Maduro once again took an aggressive tone towards the U.S., saying that a spate of opposition protests were part of a "U.S.-led plot," to destabilize the country. It's hard to say whether this is just Maduro talking to get his base riled up. What is clear, is that he finds himself in a delicate spot, given his country's economic situation.

He may not be able to afford that tone much longer.

What it means to Cuba

Cuba has had a big stake in Venezuela, since 2000 when Chávez signed the first of dozens of cooperation deals with then-island leader, Fidel Castro.

Currently, Cuba gets 110,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela each day at highly subsidized prices. In return for this generous amount of petrol, which makes up two thirds of Cuba's oil consumption, the island provides Venezuela with doctors, sports trainers and security advisers.

Although Maduro is a staunch ally of Cuba's communist regime, some analysts suspect that economic problems at home might force him to reconsider how much aid is given to Cuba.

"Every year, the Venezuelan government is spending about 20 percent more money than it brings in. That's just a huge deficit and it's one of the reasons Maduro had to devalue the currency," said William LeoGrande from American University.

"They're going to have to cut [expenditures] someplace and politically its easier to cut foreign aid than to cut domestic programs," LeoGrande said.

Aid to Bolivia and Nicaragua, could also be cut for similar reasons. That would lower Venezuela's profile in Alba, the block of socialist nations that is attempting to create an alternative to U.S. dominance in the region.

However, not everyone is so sure that Cuba will suffer cutbacks under a Maduro presidency. Maria Teresa Belandria, an international relations professor at Venezuela's Central University, says cutbacks on Cuban aid would anger the more radical members of the president's party.

"Maduro ran for the presidency, as Chávez's successor," Belandria said. "To cut aid would be to disobey Chavez's orders, and to not fulfill his mandate."

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