Caracas, Venezuela – Compared to beating cancer, defeating a united opposition wasn’t difficult for Venezuela’s long-serving president, Hugo Chavez.
Admonished as a “post-modern” dictator by the likes of neo-conservative historian Francis Fukuyama, Chavez again showed supporters on Sunday that populist democracy can work alongside “21st century socialism” – provided a country has plenty of oil to grease the economic wheels.
The Carter Center and other watchdogs certified the elections as free and fair. Voter turnout was about 80 per cent – more than a quarter higher than what a US presidential election would draw. The vote played out largely along class lines, probably suiting the former army officer from a humble, rural background just fine.
“Chavez is the image of the poor in this country,” Luigi Lobig, a philosophy professor at the Central University of Venezuela, told Al Jazeera, as he celebrated victory with friends on a downtown street. “He is an archetype the poor have claimed.”
Chavez won Sunday’s election by a large margin -beating Capriles by about 10 per cent. But the scale of his victory fell compared to the 2006 vote, when he beat his nearest rival by 26 per cent.
“My life has changed in every possible sense [since Chavez was elected] due to education and food programmes.“
– Monica Gomez, social worker
Oil and power
More than specific policies to help the downtrodden, two factors have allowed Chavez to excel in politics for so long: high oil prices and personal charisma.
“Viva the Bolivarian revolution,” chanted a group of workers from PDVSA, the state oil company, as a mini-bus chauffeured them out of a five-star hotel toward the raucous celebrations in central Caracas. “Viva Chavez!” they cheered, passing bottles of dark Cuban rum through their ranks.
As oil workers, they have a lot to be happy about.
When Chavez won his first election back in 1998, oil prices sat below $10 dollars a barrel; now they’re about $100. This windfall has allowed the government to spend generously on social housing projects, subsidised food for the poor and new universities. PDVSA has gone beyond producing oil. The “state within a state” now administers discounted supermarkets, foreign oil aid agreements and a host of other projects.
Carefully cultivated as an institution, steered by Chavez loyalists including the Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez – who also serves as the company’s boss – PDVSA will be a bulkhead of the “Bolivarian Revolution” during Chavez’s next six-year term.
If oil prices stay high -a likely scenario given the rise of emerging markets and tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme -then Chavez is likely to expand his popular social programmes.
For his supporters, often living in cramped conditions in hillside shanty-towns, the redistribution of oil wealth is a godsend.
“My life has changed in every possible sense [since Chavez was elected] due to education and food programmes,” Monica Gomez, a social worker, told Al Jazeera. “I see the kids coming from poor families who benefit from these programmes.”
Opponents, especially from the upper classes, despise the model, believing Chavez is buying the poor with public money to secure his own political interests.
“We have created a monster,” Victor Vasquez, a mechanical engineer, told Al Jazeera. “[It’s] a huge clientalistic state, where the regime gives things away in the form of ‘missions’ under the expectations that people will keep voting for them forever.”
This election, however, shows spending proceeds from black gold on people programmes has proven popular.
“Today we have demonstrated, comrades and compatriots -that our democracy is one of the best in the world,” Chavez told cheering supporters on Sunday. “The revolution has triumphed.”
Those who don’t like it -and there are many -will continue voting with their feet, rather than ballots.
|Supporters poured onto the streets [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
Chavez’s latest victory will be a boon for realtors in Miami, as remaining scions of the capitalist class search for a safe haven. But with every businessperson who leaves on a first-class, one-way ticket, Venezuela is losing what communist thinkers have called the “national bourgeoisie” -local entrepreneurs who could deftly manage capital in a way beneficial to the state.
During the campaign, Chavez’s opponent, aristocratic marathon runner Henrique Capriles, said he wanted Venezuela to look like Brazil under President Ignacio Lula de Silva, where strong economic growth has been balanced with social spending. That Lula, a successful socialist, is a supporter of Chavez seems to have been lost on Capriles, and his now unemployed campaign advisors.
Like Venezuela, Brazil has reduced poverty in recent years, and its rates of economic growth have been equal or higher to that of the Bolivarian Republic.
The difference between Lula and Chavez rests on their approach to capitalism, and economics more generally. By building Brazilian “national champions” in aerospace, oil extraction and manufacturing, Lula helped lead a wave of industrialisation – demand for commodities from China didn’t hurt either.
Chavez views national elites as enemies of the revolution, rather than a necessary evil in broader development. “Chavez receives private enterprise from Brazil with open arms,” Milos Alcalay, Venezuela’s former ambassador to the UN told, Al Jazeera. “But Venezuelan private enterprises aren’t invited to the meetings.”
From a political standpoint, domestic elites have tried to topple Chavez on more than one occasion, so it’s understandable that he doesn’t want them to come along to international meetings.
By alienating them, Chavez created something generations of left-leaning thinkers in Latin America loathe -dependency. Oil accounts for 95 per cent of Venezuelan exports and 40 per cent of government revenues. These figures have only worsened since Chavez took office.
“Before Chavez, we managed to get non-traditional exports (excluding petroleum and agriculture) to reach 35 per cent of total exports,” Economist Arlán Narváez-Vaz told Al Jazeera. “In the last 14 years, this achievement has been reduced.”
Dependent on oil -specifically on exports to the US market -Venezuela is vulnerable to price declines and other petrol-related problems.
With a renewed mandate, the president must tackle niggling social issues -less glamorous than his dreams of Latin American integration and a “multi-polar world”. Crime is out of control and power cuts have become a problem.
“I believe Chavez will start working in some particular areas: security, water and electricity,” Franky Mendoza, a street vendor and Chavez supporter, told Al Jazeera as he celebrated the president’s victory. “He has failed in some of these things and he will improve them now.”
Caracas alone experienced 19,336 murders last year, compared with 4,550 in 1998.
Critics believe the government allows street gangs to operate in some areas, harassing local people, so long as the criminals support the state. The government, obviously, denies the charges, but high rates of violent crime require some existential re-examination.
Centralising power around a charismatic leader – backed by oil money and populist intentions – is an efficient recipe for winning elections.
Leftists the world over believe inequality, poverty and crime are closely linked. And there is ample evidence to support this view. In Venezuela, however, poverty and inequality have dropped, but crime has risen; the basic architecture for domestic security needs to be re-examined at the highest levels. “He should improve security,” Hildre Andara, 48, a pro-Chavez saleswoman, told Al Jazeera. “He needs to change the strategy on that matter.”
In December, voters will go back to the polls to choose state governors, and this could pose a problem for “El Comandante”. The Chavez faithful identify more with the leader than his political party. If basic problems of daily life, such as crime, aren’t addressed, Chavez could find himself hamstrung to carry out broad policy changes by a group of recalcitrant local governors.
Drinking beer in the back of his battered pick-up truck during victory celebrations, Pedro Martinez, an iron worker, has a message for his fellow Chavistas: “The people have to help with the management of the country so it is more efficient.”
Centralising power around a charismatic leader -backed by oil money and populist intentions – is an efficient recipe for winning elections. It’s less successful when it comes to building an independent, safe and prosperous country over the long-term.