WERE it to be replicated in the US next month, the result of this week’s presidential election in Venezuela would be hailed as a landslide for the incumbent.
By Hugo Chavez’s standards, however, a nearly 10 per cent majority is a comparatively narrow margin of victory. Six years ago, he led his nearest rival by 26 per cent.
It’s a fairly decisive result all the same. A primary reason for Henrique Capriles’s relative success in polling almost 45 per cent of the vote is that the various opposition parties decided this year to offer a united front by putting up just one candidate.
Other factors that helped him included an appalling crime rate and the disconcerting state of the nation’s infrastructure.
Even some of Chavez’s supporters concede that while El Comandante is an inspirational leader, management is not his forte. There are also reports of mid-level corruption in state structures and enterprises.
It is notable, though, that Capriles positioned himself as a centre-left candidate, and although his policy pronouncements occasionally deviated from this image, he evidently felt obliged to promise that his administration would maintain many of the social measures put in place under Chavez.
Some of Capriles’ detractors say the left-leaning posture in fact concealed a neoliberal agenda that had to be kept under wraps lest it spooked a large part of the electorate.
Be that as it may, it is certainly telling that it was deemed opportune to accept, at least in theory, that some of the socioeconomic measures instituted under Chavez would not be reversed.
More broadly, Capriles claimed to have a model in mind based on the progressive but less radical Brazilian administration of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Roussef.
For what it’s worth, Lula, liberated from the constraints of office, was quoted last month as saying: “A victory for Chavez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America … This victory will strike another blow against imperialism.”
In terms of foreign policy, Capriles made it clear that he would deviate sharply from his rival’s tendencies: no more arms purchases from Russia, no more fraternal ties with countries such as Iran and Belarus, no more subsidised oil for neighbours such as Cuba and Nicaragua.
In the last context, he vowed to spend the money thus saved on poverty alleviation within Venezuela.
Which sounds almost reasonable, provided one ignores the fact that notable advances during the past decade in providing healthcare and basic education to economically deprived Venezuelans — some of whom had never previously encountered a doctor or a teacher — could hardly have been accomplished without Cuban assistance.
Chances are a triumph for Capriles would also have led to a sharp realignment in relations between Caracas and Washington.
The latter has been paranoid about Chavez since the time, a dozen years ago, he ignored an American warning and flew to Baghdad to personally invite Saddam Hussein to an Opec summit; he was also keen to persuade Iran and Arab oil-producing states to increase the commodity’s price, which languished at less than $10 a barrel at the time.
It has grown 10-fold since then, not so much because of Chavez’s efforts but as a result of American war-mongering. Venezuela has the world’s largest certified deposits of crude, and its exports have provided Chavez with the resources to fund social and economic programmes that have reduced by half the proportion of Venezuelans living in poverty.
Perhaps more could have been done in this respect, and Chavez has promised to be a better president during his next six-year term, which begins in January. If he sees it out, he will by 2019 have been in power for two decades. There are doubts about that because of a health scare that since mid-2011 has entailed multiple visits to Havana for chemotherapy. Chavez says he has beaten the cancer, although Western media reports cite unnamed insiders as claiming that his condition is terminal. American newscaster Dan Rather went as far as to report last May that the patient had just a few months to live.
That may have been wishful thinking, much like some of the more breathless commentary of recent months about the likelihood of a Chavez defeat. Let us also not forget how the anti-Chavez coup of 10 years ago, eventually foiled by a popular uprising, was hailed by US officials and leading newspapers as a triumph for democracy.
His enduring popularity among a majority of Venezuelans is hard to explain for those who routinely portray him as a blustering autocrat (who has, mind you, won more elections than any US president since Franklin Roosevelt), and it’s not unusual for the passionate enthusiasm he inspires to be dismissed as a personality cult.
“Mr Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy and continue populist programmes,” according to an Associated Press report this week. “He is also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with US rivals.”
Of course, one of the reasons he attracts so much ire is that in the wake of his first victory in 1998, almost the whole of South America opted for a similarly social-democratic direction.
Chavez certainly has his flaws, and it is far from clear whether the gains and priorities of what he calls the Bolivarian Revolution can be maintained in the long run. In many respects, though, his legacy stands out like a beacon in a murky milieu.