If there was any question about what Venezuelan politics would be like after the death of longtime President Hugo Chávez, last night’s violent session, which turned the National Assembly into a carnival of flying fists, feet, and invective, left little doubt and plenty of foreboding.
To call it a dust-up would be risibly misleading. Around 7 p.m. local time, beefy security guards clad in Windbreakers emblazoned with the patented yellow, blue, and red colors of the national flag attacked—there’s no politer word for it—members of the Venezuelan opposition in the wood-paneled assembly hall. Video captured by cellphone inside the hall showed one oversize bouncer landing repeated roundhouse punches on men in jackets and ties, while his compañeros kept a knot of lawmakers at bay, with dozens more left imploring almost pathetically for peace.
Federal representative Julio Borges, from Caracas, was repeatedly beaten, his face a pulp of bruises and blood. Former presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado was toppled and kicked repeatedly—apparently in the face, to judge by her discolored and swollen nose. One other dissident congressman was reported to have suffered a broken leg. By evening's end, 17 lawmakers had been injured, 12 of them opponents to the sitting government in Caracas.
What triggered the assault by loyalists to the Chávez heir, Nicolás Maduro, was not immediately clear, not least because the cameras of the state-controlled networks broadcasting the congressional session abruptly cut away from a live feed to a two-minute video attacking opposition leader, Gov. Henrique Capriles Randonski.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, lost narrowly to Maduro in the April 14 balloting that the opposition charged was riddled with irregularities and outright fraud. Capriles called the assault by Chávista loyalists a “fascist attack.“
While millions of Venezuelans watched the canned video, which tarred Capriles as a reactionary and the scion of pampered elites, chaos broke out on the congressional floor, where the United Socialist Party controls the overwhelming majority of seats. Opponents unfurled a banner inside the National Assembly denouncing a parliamentary “coup d’état.” This was a reference to the gag order by Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, who barred dissident lawmakers from speaking so long as they refused to “examine their consciences” and failed to recognize Maduro as “the legitimate” Venezuelan president.
In a press conference last night, Congressman Borges, his left eye swollen nearly shut and blood streaking his cheek and chin, joined other injured representatives to blame the violence on Cabello, who he said "represents the hate, repression, and fascism" that Venezuelans abhor. With such violent actions, he added, "Cabello is digging the grave of what they call the revolution."
In a comic, but somehow fitting, counterpoint, while fists flew in Congress, across town Maduro and his aides were being treated to an exclusive performance by the acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil, then touring Venezuela.
The fracas in Congress was only the latest in a series of aggressive acts committed in the aftermath of the April 14 elections, in which some 15 million Venezuelans went to the polls to choose a successor to Chávez, who died of cancer in March.
Chávistas, as those loyal to the late president are known, rallied around Maduro, a onetime bus driver and former foreign minister, but Maduro won only by the thinnest of margins—1.8 percent of total ballots cast—in a contest that Chávez's foes charged was marked by thousands of questionable "events,” including ballot stuffing and drive-by intimidation of voters as they queued at polling stations.
Led by Capriles, the opposition demanded a full audit of vote, including a comparison of actual voter rolls with the paper printouts from electronic voting machines. Others argued that the vote should be annulled and a new election called. The National Electoral Council agreed to a partial audit, but declared that the outcome would not alter the result, confirming Maduro as the victor.
To press their point, tens of thousands of dissidents took to the streets in protests that turned bloody, with Chávistas clashing with demonstrators, claiming seven lives in a few hours.
Though are constantly enjoined to protest peacefully and avoid being baited into reacting violently, tensions have wound to alarming levels in Caracas and dozens of other cities across this nation of 28 million and painted Venezuela's discontents into a political corner.
Conventional dissent and opposition through the courts and the ballot box "has clearly run its course," wrote Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan blogger sympathetic to the opposition.
"Venezuela’s democratic movement is being violently shoved into the kind of underground resistance it never envisioned for itself, never sought, isn’t well prepared to take on, and never actually wanted," Toro blogged late yesterday.
With more protests expected in the coming days, hopes for a peaceful transition in the 14-year-old Bolívarian revolution appear to be fading fast.