Venezuelans tired after brutal few months
On Saturday I took the metro, got off at the La California stop, and dropped into Caracas' largest shopping mall.
Its an absolutely massive structure. Inside it has a giant, tube-like feeling, with nearly vertical switchback elevators carrying people upwards more than six levels into an array of corridors lined with hundreds of stores selling everything from cinnamon rolls to iPhones, to perfumes to watches from top international brands.
The place was packed.
What I saw: A long line of people staring up at the menu board at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Young couples leisurely pushing strollers and licking ice cream cones, while others were window shopping at the Adidas store. Women with lots of plastic surgery and high platform shoes scurrying about with glossy shopping bags dangling from their shoulders.
What I didn't see: Anybody wearing a Chavez or Maduro or Capriles t-shirt.
What I didn't hear: Anybody talking politics.
Venezuelans are a tired people. At least tired of politics, at least for now, at least on Saturday.
You can't blame them. They deserve a rest.
Since late last year the country has lived through the uncertainty of a popular president fighting for his life in another country, and not seen or heard from in nearly two months.
They lived through the shock of the sudden death of that president, Hugo Chavez, and the gut wrenching week-long funeral that paralysed the country and brought millions out to wait for as long as 10 hours to see his body.
Venezuelans then had to quickly shift from mourning to campaigning, and slogged through the presidential election. It was a Red Bull-like one week sprint that was an exhausting and bitter exercise in democracy in a flash. It all culminated with closing campaign pushes on each side that brought millions of people to the clog the streets in day long rallies.
Venezuelans were then frozen on election night by the surprise results: The tightest presidential election in recent memory, with government candidate Nicolas Maduro narrowly holding on to a 50 percent to 49 percent victory – instantly wedging an already divided country right down the center.
The country then faced a violent post-election week, where both sides had running street battles that left several dead, and back and forth accusations on both sides of inflaming the violence.
The opposition refused to concede and brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in nightly protests to push for a recount. Maduro, the president elect with the narrowest of mandates, countered with booming fireworks shows blasted off from the roofs of government buildings in Caracas every night. He also leveled claims of a coup attempt by the opposition.
Fascism, holocaust, assassins, murders, coup…. All words thrown around in the past week by both sides at some point.
It was a week of daily one-upsmanship by two sides with healthy egos and lots of personal spite for each other with the presidency dangling in the balance.
A conciliatory middle ground? It hasn't existed in Venezuela for months.
And right when it was thought to be coming to an end, at almost 10 pm the night before the inauguration of Maduro as president, the Venezuelan electoral body surprisingly dropped another bomb by granting the opposition a partial audit of the vote, thus promising that the last chapter of this saga would not be written on inauguration day.
Finally on Friday Maduro was inaugurated president, but even that had it's own dose of drama.
Less than 10 minutes into his inaugural address to the nation, with more than 60 international delegations and more than a dozen heads of states in the audience (including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), a protestor rushed the podium and pushed the new president aside as the TV feed briefly cut away, fearing the worst. Thankfully, order was quickly restored but not before now President Nicolas Maduro boldly and publicly scolded his security staff from the microphone saying; "They could have easily shot me!"
Maduro then resumed his address, which lasted over an hour, at one point agreeing to reconcile with the opposition, even if it meant sitting down with - in his words - "the devil".
All this in the past few months, and I didn't even mention there was also a painful currency devaluation along the way.
Yes, Venezuelans are a tired people. But they know there is another fight looming for both sides.
President Maduro is now a man running an oil rich country but one with the second highest inflation in the Americas, and one of the worst violent crime rates in the world.
He is a man who is trying to come out of the shadow of his popular predecessor (whose policies helped lift hundreds of thousands from poverty), and doing so entering the presidency politically battered and with an audit of the vote count hanging over his head for the next few weeks.
A new sample poll released Saturday revealed that 62 percent of Venezuelans think the job Maduro has done the past week running the government has been "poor or very poor".
But former opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is also a politically bruised man, having lost two national elections in the span of six months. He's got that vote audit to grasp onto as hope, but on Saturday the vice president of the national electoral council said that no matter what the outcome of the "technical" audit, the election results are "irreversible," and if the opposition is not satisfied they can take it up with a court.
The opposition leaders are urging their side to be patient. They might need it. Maduro won't be up for re-election again until 2019.
That might be how long this entire country needs to recover from the past few months.
Note to Venezuelans on both sides of the political divide: Eat your fried chicken. Go shopping. Do whatever makes you happy. You deserve it.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel