CARACAS – The election that just gave Hugo Chávez his fourth term as president was about more than who would lead Venezuela. It was also a confrontation between two worldviews – one that aspires to control society and impose a single way of thinking upon it, and another that is committed to democracy, social justice, and liberty. The former is inspired by the example of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the latter by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Chávez’s latest triumph appears to consolidate the authoritarian and populist model of government that he has brought to Venezuela. Even though he won decisively, gaining 54.4% of the popular vote, his margin of victory over his challenger, Henrique Capriles, was much less than in 2006, when Chávez took 63% of the vote. After that election, perhaps heady with the magnitude of his support, he proposed deepening his revolution with new laws on the organization of society and the economy.
These laws, already approved but not fully implemented, should be the catalyst for a new institutional arrangement within the country, one supposedly premised on a direct relationship between leader and people and a progressive hollowing out of democratic institutions. Meanwhile, all bodies of public power – all of them – now obey Chávez.
Given this history, it is noteworthy that, in his speech the day after his victory, Chávez called for coexistence, dialogue, debate, and for everyone to work together for the good of Venezuela. He emphasized that the people had voted for Chávez and socialism. But he congratulated the opposition for having accepted the results, and he committed himself to being a better president than he had been previously and to insisting on greater efficiency from his officials.
But Chávez has made similar offers of cooperation before, so Venezuelans will have to wait and see what more their president has to say about his future mode of governance once the euphoria of victory has passed.
The election followed a memorable campaign. Capriles, a young politician who was first a mayor and then a governor of a state, was elected in open primaries in which more than three million Venezuelans participated. He mounted an energetic and creative crusade.
In contrast to Chávez, whose movements were limited by his health (he has cancer), Capriles visited more than 300 towns in three months, campaigning in the streets and before large crowds in the 24 state capitals. The large crowds that turned out at Capriles’s gatherings are proof of the enthusiasm that he inspired and, above all, of the opposition’s renewed hope that Chávez could be defeated. Capriles fell short of that objective, but he has emerged as the opposition’s unquestioned leader.
The 44.4% of the popular vote that went to Capriles represents Venezuelan society’s capacity for resistance against Chávez’s authoritarian project, and its abuses with respect to universities, the media, and workers.
Nearly half of the country has expressed its rejection of the model that is being thrust on it. Conserving a democratic system, although damaged, has been possible thanks to the efforts of Venezuelan civil society, which helped the opposition receive two million votes.
The Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, which comprises the majority of Venezuelan parties, must now unite the opposition, organize and participate actively in the gubernatorial and mayoral elections to be held in December, and act as the political vanguard in defense of democracy and the rule of law. In Capriles, opposition forces now have a national leader, which they lacked when challenging Chávez in the past.
Both inside the country and abroad, many are interested in the impact that Chávez’s new mandate might have on Venezuela’s foreign policy – an area in which he has been particularly active. The close alliances with Cuba and the populist governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, have been strengthened: all of them – as well as Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – stand to benefit to different degrees from Chávez’s victory, but not as much as they would have been harmed had the president been defeated.
Venezuela will continue to participate in all of the regional organizations, pursuing its goal of regional integration to the exclusion of the United States and Canada. As a result, relations with the US will probably remain tense, although Chávez recently stated that he would like to improve ties if Obama is re-elected – a surprising turn of events, given that he has expelled one US ambassador and rejected another.
Having been able to reestablish relations with Colombia under its new president, Juan Manuel Santos, Chávez could well try to do the same with the US. But, even if that really is his aim, there is no guarantee that the US will reciprocate.