The Chávez Challenge

Venezuela’s recent legislative elections confirmed trends that have repeatedly brought the country into the headlines in recent years. President Hugo Chávez showed once again that he enjoys broad support among the nation’s poor and desperate, and that he is miles ahead of his opposition in terms of political skill, cunning, and ruthlessness. Yet at the same time voter turnout is declining with each passing election under Chávez, and the questionable fairness of the electoral process has grown increasingly apparent.

To be sure, the opposition’s withdrawal from the election just days before the vote was, as Chávez claimed, more a symptom of its own weakness than of problems with the electoral process. And, just as surely, that very weakness is a function of the gradual stifling of many features of Venezuela’s traditional democratic order.

Even so, the opposition’s mistakes have been massive, ranging from support for the failed coup against the democratically elected Chávez in April 2002 to the failed strike at PEDEVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, in early 2003. Nothing is more lethal in politics than failure in direct confrontation.

In such circumstances, Chávez can afford to be bold, despite his policies’ failure to benefit his core constituency: the more than 50% of Venezuelans who live in destitution and despair. Poverty has grown since Chávez took office in 1998; government finances and the trade balance are more dependent on oil revenues than before, and, aside from Cuban literacy programs and neighborhood “barefoot doctor” services, the overall welfare of the poor remains the same, if not worse.