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Major challenges face Venezuela's next leader - whoever he is

Tomas Bravo / Reuters

Venezuelan presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores celebrate after the official results gave him a victory in the balloting, in Caracas on Sunday.

News Analysis 

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The late President Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won Venezuela’s presidential election Sunday with just 50.7 percent of the vote, according to election board returns. 

The slim victory over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who won 49.1 percent of the vote, was a difference of just about 235,000 votes. 

Capriles has refused to accept the results, alleging incidences of fraud and voting intimidation at polling booths across the country. Instead of a concession speech, the popular 40-year-old governor demanded a recount. "We are talking about a small difference, a tiny difference," he said.  "We will not accept the results until all votes are counted, one by one." 

The Venezuelan government announced that Maduro would be formally proclaimed the winner by the election board at a ceremony and rally in Caracas on Monday afternoon -- despite Capriles' demands for a recount.

While Capriles has not called out for his supporters to take to the streets, a protracted election dispute would be difficult on the deeply divided country.

Whatever the final outcome, the next leader of Venezuela will inherit a country with the world's second largest oil reserves -- but also a nation plagued with problems including food shortages, inflation, corruption and crime. 

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

Supporters of Venezuela's opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles react after the official results gave a victory to Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on Sunday.

Empty shelves
"You have to walk all over town from supermarket to supermarket to find what you need," said Olivia Nunez, standing in front of empty shelves at the Magdalena supermarket in Caracas’ Chacao neighborhood. 

Sugar, rice, coffee, milk, cooking oil, chicken and even soap and toilet paper are hard to come by at grocery stores. 

Lifelong residents of the middle-class neighborhood say shortages were unheard of until Chavez took office 14 years ago. When supplies do arrive, neighbors call each other to share the news and rush to stand in lines that sometimes make checkout a two-hour process.

The reasons for the shortages are many. Government measures to enforce price controls have discouraged domestic production. So have government expropriations. Many farm owners hesitate to invest in crops, fearing the fate of neighbors whose land was seized under a Chavez program that grants parcels to low-income families. 

Erika Angulo/ NBC News

This sign tells shoppers in a Caracas grocery store on Sunday that they are restricted to just 4 kilograms of rice per customer.

Adding to the shortages, suppliers of foreign goods say, is the administration's decision to scale back the number of dollars importers can buy. They complain they can't access the necessary dollars to pay manufacturers abroad. 

‘I'm terrified’
Crime is rampant, with kidnappings, robberies and home invasions skyrocketing over the last decade. 

The U.S. State Department has warned travelers that crime in the country is "pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and the interior." Violent crimes, including murder, are also up.  Statistics gathered by the nongovernment group Venezuelan Violence Observatory show that for every 100,000 Caracas residents there are 122 murders per year. For comparison, the rate in New York City is 5.6 murders per 100,000 residents. 

Valeria Ardenko said she stopped going out after 8 p.m. after a nephew was mugged at gunpoint. "I used to love to go to the theater, but now I'm terrified," said the 71-year-old grandmother.  

Home invaders who never leave are another risk many Venezuelans face. In some instances, squatters move in while residents are away on vacation. Some 100 activists earlier this month seized dozens of condos and empty lots in Caracas. Police managed to turn back about 16 occupiers, but others remained. 

"We have a government that allows those who have been living in a hut to take over your home because they feel like it. And no one does anything to stop them," said homeowner Aide Solotucha. 

Chavez promoted a process of expropriation of lands and homes deemed unoccupied as a way to deal with the country's home shortage while his administration built public housing.

After passionate campaigning, Venezuelans went to the polls to choose who will replace the late Hugo Chavez. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

Still united by oil
Caracas-Washington relations soured during the Chavez regime, with the Venezuelan president frequently accusing the U.S. of interference, even alleging an assassination plot against him. Chavez simultaneously strengthened relations with Iran and Russia, ignoring the concerns of U.S. officials.  And both countries have expelled each other's diplomats.  

But there is still one tie that unites them: oil. 

"The oil trade relationship between Venezuela and the United States has been the source of stability between the two countries during what has been, without question, really rough political and diplomatic times," said Sarah Ladislaw of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 

Most energy expert say getting along with whoever ends up being sworn in as this OPEC country's leader will be to the advantage of the U.S. 

Related:

Venezuela divided: Recount demanded after razor thin victory by Chavez successor

Dramatic exit: Heads of state gather for Chavez's funeral

Chavez's last words: 'Please don't let me die,' general says

Full Venezuela coverage from NBC News