Wednesday, September 3, 2014
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A Leader is Born in Venezuela

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.

Read more from our "The Return of Hugo Chávez?" Focal Point.

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  1. Commentedjuan carlos

    the country is rotten with corruption and inefficiency. living off of high priced oil, giving people handouts to keep them satisfied but not really developing anything substantial... it's a mess. and no, the alternative wouldn't be being US' lapdog.

  2. Commentedjames durante

    This ultra-capitlaist site never misses a chance to bash Chavez. Surprise?! I'm sure a Pinochet style coup in Venezuela and shock doctrine of disappearances, torture, deregulation, privatization, and massively re-emerging inequality would be held up as a "return to democracy."

  3. CommentedMK Anon

    Little content in this article: The second sentence is already accusing chavez without argument. And stating later that "almost a majority" is against Chavez.. means it's a minority. Chavez played by the rule. Chavez won. That's the hard fact that Mr Cadenas should acknowledge in the first place.

    One can claim he used government's mean for his campaign.. but his opponent wasn't under funded either. One can claim he "bought" the votes.. True, he did distribute oil money to those who would never had a cent under a "democratic" system (oil for multinationals and the rent for the country would be for militaris to defend oil).. And yes, Chavez also did propaganda and brainwashing.. well, everyone does - all political leaders. Weapons of mass destruction wasn't a massive brainwash?

    Chavez is a populist and he divides his country, and also divides the world, instead of trying more consensual actions. This is (to me) not the good way to govern and there are other latin american leaders who managed to get better outcomes without such a dichotomy and a need for opposition (i.e Chavez has the same style as Bush).

    However, we have to trust Venezuelians's choice - they are to suffer to consequences. As Frank says below, there are worse cases in the region.. and all the worse cases have much better relations with the US.

  4. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    A good question to ask is: What would it be like without Hugo Chávez? Would there be an alternative left wing populist? Or would there be a repressive right wing American client with the usual associated death squads and mass murders?
    Chavez was democratically re-elected. He has another historic opportunity to improve further the condition of his country.
    He has also forced a reform of the right wing opposition to include the idea of democracy. A victory indeed.

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