Hugo Chávez seems closer than ever to reelection. At his disposal he has all the power and resources of the state to ensure his victory, allowing him to impose fines on his critics (the Globovisión channel), force all the channels to broadcast his interminable speeches, compel the public media to brazenly slant their news broadcasting in his favor and make public employees donate a day's pay to his election campaign. And now he has a signal success in foreign policy: Venezuela's entry in the Mercosur South American economic union.
Chávez justifies the use of such means, arguing that these are not elections between equally legitimate proposals, but between Christ and Antichrist, the people's revolution and the imperialist reaction - headed by the hard-working but uncharismatic Henrique Capriles, who at 39 energetically hoofs it around the country to show at least that, unlike Chávez, he is unlikely to drop dead. A "defeat to imperialism" is one thing Chávez has called Venezuela's entry in Mercosur, made up of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay - the last of which had blocked Venezuela's entry; but its own suspension has opened the way. And though "American imperialism" has worse expectations of defeat elsewhere, Washington would surely prefer Chávez to remain on his own.
The entry has been good business for Chávez. He was on top form at the admission ceremony, which showed Venezuela is not all alone, in the sole company of allies as unpresentable as Cuba, Iran and the Syria of Bashar al-Assad. In particular he has pleased his party base, and those who fluctuate between his "light totalitarianism" - as the opposition's intellectual beacon Teodoro Petkoff calls it - and the modest democratic normality offered by Henrique Capriles.
Chavez has called the move a "defeat to imperialism"
Venezuela had never before possessed a leader known to everyone in the world, even if they speak ill of him. And the entry in Mercosur seems to prove that the inventor of "21st-century Socialism" moves nimbly in that arena, where nothing can happen, at least in Latin America, without Chávez having a hand in the game.
A sort of international survey is now under way, as to who comes out ahead with the entry. Venezuela above all, and Chávez above Venezuela. Then Brazil, which - though with upcoming oilfields of its own needs Venezuelan crude less than others - may become the top food supplier to a country that under Chávez imports 70 percent of what it eats. It is bad news, however, for Colombia, which before President Álvaro Uribe resoundingly broke with Chávez had more than five billion euros' worth of bilateral trade with its neighbor, and under President Juan Manuel Santos had lately recovered half of it.
Brazil has good reasons to desire Caracas as a customer: in the last 10 years its businessmen have invested more than 15 billion euros in Venezuela. But there are politico-psychological reasons too. The noisy show with which Dilma Rousseff received her new partner dramatizes her independence of Washington; and surely she prefers to have Chávez inside the circle than out, taking pot shots at whatever moves. Enthusiasm, however, is not universal. The Foreign Ministry in Brasilia has only halfheartedly seconded the president's diplomacy.
And the also emphatic Argentinian satisfaction is perhaps best explained by the race Cristina Fernández is running against the Bolivarian for the gold medal in the Olympic Games of anti-imperialism. Argentina is playing a cagey game in Mercosur, eliminating duty-free products; and, at most, may be expecting that Caracas will shrink rather than enlarge Brasilia's role in the organization.
October 7 will decide between the populist magnetism of Chávez, buoyed up by the improvement of the unfavorable economic situation, and an opposition that can point to insufficiencies such as soaring crime, corruption, slack administration and a manifest undermining of democracy.
But, no doubt about it, Mercosur is going to be a great asset for the president.