(Corrects government reference to recount in second paragraph.)
Never mind the toxic felicitations from democratic paragons like Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko and Russia's Vladimir Putin. One of the most telling responses to Nicolas Maduro's victory in Venezuela's presidential election yesterday came from Diosdado Cabello, his fellow Chavista and president of the National Assembly. Speaking of Maduro's less than two percent margin of victory -- the narrowest win in a Venezuelan presidential contest since 1968 -- Cabello tweeted that "the results oblige us to make a profound self-criticism."
The comment by Cabello, an internal rival with strong ties to the military and business, points to the political challenges facing President-elect Maduro and augurs for a rough, unpredictable period ahead. Even with huge support from the military and government, Maduro barely eked out a win. (Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski has demanded a recount that Maduro, after earlier accepting in principle, is now rejecting.) To secure his legitimacy moving forward, Maduro may feel that he has to out-Chavez Chavez, cracking down on an emboldened opposition, swatting at the U.S. and cozying up closer to China and Iran, expropriating more companies and shutting down the media. Reflecting the prospect of instability, Venezuelan bonds were Latin America's worst performing securities last month, and fell on news of Maduro's election.
Not that Venezuela has had much good economic news lately. Despite Maduro's pre-election boast that "our economy is stronger than ever," inflation hit 23 percent in February, the highest rate in the hemisphere; the central bank's scarcity index, which measures how many goods are out of stock, is at a record high; dollars are hard to come by, and the official exchange rate would make a magical realist proud; and growth is expected to slow to 1.9 percent, if not give way to recession. "We must do away with the perverse values of capitalism," said Maduro in his victory speech. In this area, at least, Venezuela is succeeding.
Notwithstanding filmmaker Oliver Stone's delirious claim that "Venezuela is the number one target of the United States media and the State Department that exists today," the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama mostly tried to ignore Chavez and has so far kept a low profile on Maduro's election. Given the mounting problems facing the new president, and the spotty history of U.S.-Latin American relations (especially vis-à-vis Venezuela), this might be one of those few instances where a continued "strategic patience" makes sense.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)