Hugo Chávez has won Venezuela’s presidential elections, defeating his conservative rival, Henrique Capriles by more than 9% of the vote and guaranteeing a third six-year term as head of the Opec member nation. Turnout was an astounding 80.4% of the electorate.
For the past month, this election had been erroneously cast by many as a tightening race between a young and energetic opposition candidate, Capriles, and a sickly, washed-up Chávez whose outdated socialist ideas had finally run their course. The immense support that Chávez still has after 13 years in power is rarely captured accurately by outside accounts of the country.
I myself was reminded of this fact just before the elections, when I had the good fortune of sharing a few drinks with a Venezuelan film colleague in a Caracas night spot affectionately referred to by locals, somewhat disconcertingly, as Stab Alley. The district is Chavista turf, miles away from the upper class clubs that attract the city’s well-to-do. It was no surprise to see the comandante on the bar’s battered television.
Our conversation predictably turned to politics. Between sips of Cacique rum, my friend and I went back and forth on a range of topics, I was playing devil’s advocate in criticising the government for its paternalism and failure to truly change the country’s oil rent economy; he was defending the administration on nearly all fronts.
I continued to pigheadedly press my colleague until he starkly turned to me and stated in a rather grave and unsettling tone: “I would not hesitate to sacrifice my life to defend this president. He’s the only one who has done anything for the Venezuelan people.”
This statement, uttered from the mouth of a college-educated Venezuelan worker – the equivalent of “Joe the plumber” in the United States – took me aback. Gringo that I am, I couldn’t fathom taking up arms to defend any politician, ever. So as the discussion came to a relatively awkward end, I was left to contemplate how Chávez, after all these years, could still provoke such die-hard loyalty in his supporters.
No one can deny the concrete benefits that many Venezuelans have received since the leader of the nation’s “Bolivarian revolution” first came to power in 1999. His government has expanded education and healthcare while slashing poverty and writing one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. The economy has been good, thanks to high oil prices, and despite the failure to effectively address the question of security and violent crime, the incumbent president can boast of some solid accomplishments.
But there is something deeper that has eluded the gaze of outside pundits who for years have portrayed Chávez as either an autocratic dictator or a petrol-rich buffoon. What Chávez is, in fact, is Venezuelan: there is no more authentic a representative of the country’s character than him. He is gregarious, loquacious, intensely nationalistic, contradictory, sometimes petulant, and he displays an uncanny, chameleon-like ability to be everything to everyone.
Critics describe these traits as simple “populism”, but Chávez has also done something that no political leader before him has done. Unapologetically, relentlessly, the leftist head of state has succeeded in projecting the image of an independent and sovereign Venezuela onto an international stage. In doing so, he has snapped the tradition of subservience that characterised the nation for decades. This vindication of “Venezuelan-ness” on a global scale has been one of his greatest triumphs for a population that has longed to be recognised as being “just as good” as northern nations.
Of course, there is a strong opposition movement in the country, one that takes the US and Europe as its societal models and who view Chávez with as much repulsion as “the monkeys who live in the slums”, as a Venezuelan engineer once confided to me. But while there is surely passion on the opposition side, I have yet to encounter the sort of devotion that I have in the Chávez camp. And I certainly have not met anyone who has confessed a willingness to take a bullet for Henrique Capriles.