Venezuela Deeply Divided After Chavez Death, Recent Election

The death of Hugo Chavez and the election of his successor in a tightly-fought race has left Venezuela more deeply divided than ever. Now it's fueling instability in one of the world's great oil powers.

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The death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's bombastic and charismatic president, has left that country sharply divided. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, took over. He won a snap election, which gave the ruling party six more years. But Maduro's victory was slim. Nearly half the country supported his opponent, and that creates instability in one of the world's great oil powers. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas on the uncertainty about Venezuela's future.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: It's become a nightly cacophony: Venezuelans, in cities and towns nationwide, banging pots and pans and banging them hard. It's the most popular form of anti-government protest, and it's been going on ever since Nicolas Maduro was elected president by a whisker, succeeding his boss, Hugo Chavez. The vote, in fact, was so tight that the opposition believes its candidate, Henrique Capriles, won.

So people hit the streets when the electoral council, which is allied with the government, ruled against a recount. They were people like Rafael Colmenares. He's not only demanding change but says he's worried about the antagonisms in his country.

RAFAEL COLMENARES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: We're more polarized than ever, he says, and it's the hate that's damaged the country. He says it's hate generated by the government. Not so fast, says Ismer Mota, who supports the government.

ISMER MOTA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: They're looking for an excuse, says Mota, saying the protesters are part of a plot to destabilize the government. The divide represented by these two ordinary Venezuelans has been apparent for years. But under Chavez, the government still had a solid majority of supporters. That's changed, says Capriles, the opposition leader. He took 7.3 million votes, 49 percent of the electorate.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: There's no majority here, Capriles says. Here, there are two halves. The newly inaugurated president, Maduro, seems to be doing little to bridge the divide. He has heaped scorn on his adversaries, even at his swearing in, where he characterized his foes as Nazis who might swarm across South America.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Fascists, he calls his foes, who disguise themselves but have evil intentions against our people and the people across the continent. In the wake of the protests, the government is now permitting an audit of 46 percent of the vote. But Venezuela remains tense, and psychologist Gilberto Arana-Sierralta is worried. He's head of the Venezuelan Society of Psychological Health. And he says the polarization means Venezuelans have no respect for each other.

GILBERTO ARANA-SIERRALTA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: People treat each other as enemies, he says, discrediting each other by calling each other names. The bitter debates have separated families and co-workers. It's especially pronounced in the National Assembly.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: On a recent day, opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said the Cuban government, which is close to Maduro, helped cover up voting irregularities.

TANIA DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Tania Diaz, from the ruling party, answered by calling Machado a coward, irresponsible, criminal, scoundrel. The acrimony is getting to people like Jose Duarte. He owns a small, busy grocery store and wants nothing to do with angry debates. Until recently, customers in his store would hold heated political discussions. They'd yell, shove and, on one occasion, even spit on each other. So Duarte put up signs banning talk of politics. They're near the register, the meat section and over by the cheese.

And now I'm in the fruit section, and there's another sign: prohibited to talk about politics. I'm going to try to talk politics, though. I have the owner's permission. Mario Paez, 63, a shopper, remembered the days when people from different political parties could still go out for dinner.

MARIO PAEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: You just can't talk politics. He says the country is simply split in two. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.

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