Chávez at Bay

SÃO PAULO – The recent opposition victories in Venezuela’s municipal and state elections, together with the international financial crisis, have begun to set limits on the powers of President Hugo Chávez for the first time in the decade he has been in power.

Indeed, the elections demonstrated that Chávez’s control of the country is no longer total. There is now a solid opposition in Venezuela and less distance between those who rule and those who want to rule. This is important progress, considering that the opposition is still paying a price for its boycott of the 2005 elections that gave Chávez absolute control of Parliament.

The growing strength and coherence of the opposition is not due to the number of disaffected Chávez supporters alone. In fact, those who once hoped for the creation of a “third pole” in Venezuelan politics were pushed aside by the traditional polarization between Chávez’s supporters and opponents. Instead, the opposition grew because of a return to its 1998 and 2001 levels of popular support – around 40% – and because it was able to bring back into the fold some of the abstainers and undecided, including important popular factions.

The opposition is now represented mostly by professional democratic politicians who not only united a wide group of factions, but also displaced the “Salvadores de la Patria” (the Nation’s Saviors) – a group accustomed to leading the opposition from the reception rooms of the capital’s hotels. The opposition’s new leadership also displaced those who wanted to supplant “populist” leaders with an anti-political discourse.