Chávez Carries On: Lessons to be Learned from a Resounding Victory

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By now, the cheers from victorious celebrations greeting Hugo Chávez to another term as President of Venezuela have abated. Despite the oft-hysterical predictions of some in the mainstream media, the election was not carried out on a wave of violence, but rather seems to have reaffirmed the integrity of the Venezuelan electoral process. Even opposition candidate Henrique Capriles acknowledged the results. Indeed, Chávez, Capriles, and their respective aide de camps remained remarkably well behaved in the aftermath of the ballot count. By all of the available data, Capriles carried on a respectable fight against Chávez, succeeding in narrowing the Venezuelan leader’s popularity gap to its slimmest divide since the incumbent first took office. This is a notable feat for a historically disorganized and scattered opposition. On the other side, however, Chávez’s supporters now can justify the true grade of his vision with a definitive democratic stamp that marks his newest presidential term.

Source:Leo Ramierez, AFP Getty Images

Under Chávez, Venezuela has seen substantial economic transformation and social improvements for the poor. The household poverty rate in Venezuela has slumped from 49 percent in 1998 to 26.7 percent in 2011, according to a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.[1] Moreover, since Chávez was first elected in 1999, Venezuela’s Gini index has decreased from 49.5 to 39 (0 representing perfect income equality and 100 representing perfect inequality).[2] The distribution of state-owned land to the landless, the building of hospitals and medical clinics in the country’s poorest areas, and the development of literacy programs have all combined to bring increased social mobility to many Venezuelans who previously had limited access to such opportunities.

By no means, however, are Chávez’s reforms ubiquitously accepted by the population, as determined by the ten percent electoral margin and the polarization of various pockets of Venezuelan society. Chávez, for his part, did acknowledge in his victory speech the legitimacy provided by the 45 percent of Venezuelans who voted against him, but it remains to be seen if he will now revert to divisive or inflammatory rhetoric to defend the revolution against dissenting attitudes in the days ahead.

After Sunday’s results, Chávez has the opportunity to solidify his democratic-socialist revolution in the near future by continuing to revel in the strident social change it has brought in the nation. Still, there are various urgent challenges that impact the quality of life for all Venezuelans, such as addressing the high crime rate and frequent blackouts. Also imperative is that Chávez improves the state oil company, PDVSA, by increasing its transparency and operating style as a way to counter future charges of inefficiency and lax maintenance. Given that 94 percent of the country’s exports consist of oil, if global oil prices dip in Chávez’s new term or if PDVSA cannot maintain its current profit structure, the Bolivarian Revolution might have to scale back on its social programs.[3] It also seems likely that Chávez will find himself facing more scrutiny as more power is devolved to communal committees seeking to be the protagonists of their own development. As a result, Chávez’s new six-year term bodes to be the toughest to date, but the Jefe Máximo has shown he still possesses a cunning level of political acumen to address these challenges.

Source: Ariana Cubillos, AP

Amidst all of the fanfare Chávez has received from victory, the United States skirted around an opportunity to offer a warm abrazo for Venezuelan democracy, instead giving Caracas a limp hand. A subdued statement from the State Department congratulated Venezuela on holding demonstrably free and safe elections, but somewhat patronizingly urged the leader to respect the wishes of the 45 percent of citizens who voted against him.[4] Such an action could be interpreted as Washington suggesting Venezuela apologize for its election results––a hypocritical line considering the White House’s own questionable involvement in numerous Latin American elections throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In Chávez’s victory speech on Sunday night, the Venezuelan leader held the Bolivar sword, bristling with symbolism, in order to represent the continued revolution for a version of Latin American 21stcentury socialism but also against traditional Washington-aligned capitalism and imperialism.

By contrast, several Latin American heads of state were quick to offer Chávez their congratulations after his victory over Capriles was assured, including such left-leaning stalwarts like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa even offered his own best wishes on his Twitter feed, saying, “Long live the Bolivarian Revolution!”

There still remain numerous obstacles facing the goal of future amicable relations between Caracas and Washington. The emergence of regional unified blocs such as Mercosur, Unasur, ALBA, in addition to the agenda of the recent failed Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, are manifestations of a gradual loss of U.S.-backed tempo throughout the hemisphere.  But these trends also represent an opportunity for U.S.—Latin American relations to take on the character of mutual respect and a tolerance of political and ideological pluralism that should inform its ideology.  If the combination of Chávez toning down his fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric were to be coupled with U.S. presidents and candidates overcoming their negative instinctual reaction to an opera bouffe image of a socialist Venezuela, bilateral relations could take a more positive turn. Yet, a concerted effort in the United States to improve relations and seek a constructive dialogue with Venezuela is all-but-impossible before the American presidential elections are held. Thus, it would behoove Washington, regardless of who is president, to productively support some form of political pluralism throughout the region. As Sunday’s results have shown, there is a great need for the White House to respect the policy gradations between democratically elected leaders in the hemisphere, to the degree that the United States respect Latin American nations’ sovereignty as each of them work out their own destiny and national interests.

Trent Boultinghouse, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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[1] Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnson. “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is it Sustainable?” Center for Economic and Policy Research. September 2012, 27.

[2] CIA, ” Venezuela,” World Factbook, Last updated 24 August 2012.

[3]  Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnson, “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is it Sustainable?” Center for Economic and Policy Research. September 2012, 3.

[4] El Universal, “Gobierno de EEUU felicita a Venezuela por alta participación,”  October 9, 2012.