Hugo Chávez has once again won an election, and Venezuelan society is more polarized than ever. This time he has succeeded in winning against an opposition united around a young and dynamic candidate, Henrique Capriles, who has obtained the best result of any candidate running in opposition to Chávez. This will be the fourth consecutive mandate for Chávez, and if he makes a full recovery from his illness he will govern for another six years — extending his rule to 20 years straight. This is too long.
It is true that Chávez has utilized the powerful state media, and has exacerbated longstanding resentments within Venezuelan society, beginning with those of race and class. But this victory was sealed by a nine-point advantage over his rival — the narrowest margin in three elections — and the highest voter turnout in recent decades. Having attracted more than six million votes, it cannot be said that Capriles was the candidate of the well-to-do classes, but rather that of a wide sector of the population who dislike the manner in which Chávez has been abusing the rules of democracy, grossly mismanaging the economy, allowing crime in the streets to burgeon and proposing to make his “Bolivarian revolution” a settled fact of life.
But the one-time coup-attempter’s victory hardly happened by chance. The most important factor going for him was the generous social policy that he has implemented, with the inestimable aid of state income from oil. This is not a policy that lays any solid foundations for the generation of wealth in the future, or for its redistribution, but it does reach large numbers of people, who form an electorate that faithfully votes for him. So much so, that Capriles never questions the continuity of this policy, but speaks of greater respect for democratic rules and better management of the economy. Capriles wisely kept his distance from the traditional political parties, tainted by a reputation for gross corruption whose smell still lingers in today’s Venezuela, even as people observe the corruption now rife among the followers of Chávez. And the defeated candidate managed to unite a patchwork opposition in his attempt to attain power at the polls. Hopefully in the months to come he will be able to preserve this unity in the name of something more than aversion to Chávez.
So Chávez is once again to be the president of Venezuela, but the doubts about his health may open up other prospects in the first years of his mandate. The Bolivarian axis and the alliance with Cuba will remain, however much to the annoyance of some of his neighbors. With regard to Colombia, Chávez has also shown that he may be of some help in bringing the long-smoldering FARC guerrilla war to an end. Any ostracism of Chávez on the part of other countries would only lead to greater radicalization within Venezuela.