Hugo Chávez’s triumph in the October 7 Venezuelan presidential elections, after 14 years in office, is a feat virtually without precedent anywhere. Elected presidents invariably suffer an erosion of support, which is why few are reelected more than once in countries without term limits. In contrast, October’s victory was Chávez’s fifth, including the opposition’s botched recall election effort in 2004. Chávez’s 55 percent of the vote far surpassed the 48 percent that his movement’s candidates received in the congressional elections just two years before and was nearly the same as what he obtained in his first presidential bid in 1998. Speaking from the “people’s balcony” of the presidential palace just hours after the results were announced, Chávez called the election “the perfect battle.”
To judge by his previous victories, Chávez’ win will be quickly followed by a new wave of reforms. In his first years in office, his emphasis was on political reforms, but after receiving massive support at the polls, he turned to anti-neoliberal economic policies including an agrarian reform. After winning the recall election in 2004, he redefined private property as a right coupled with obligations. Then after being reelected in 2006 he began expropriations. His most recent popular measure was a new labor law passed this year that outlaws outsourcing, reduces the work week and provides generous severance payments. Each step has been greeted with approval from his movement’s rank and file and serves to ensure them that the so-called “process of change” has not stagnated.
Much of the Western media coverage of the campaign has taken its cue from Chávez's opposition. Thus the age factor and the contrast between the old and the new received considerable play. On the one hand, a 58-year old Chávez, who may not survive the next presidential period due to his bout with cancer, attempted to extend his time power. On the other hand, his 40-year-old energetic rival, Henrique Capriles, sought to become the youngest president in Venezuelan history.
Concrete issues, however, were very much at stake in the October elections. Two very different visions emerged. Chávez addressed the phenomenon of the foreign takeover of vast sectors of the Venezuelan economy in the 1990s, from telecommunications, steel, cement, electricity to the airlines. His antidote has been nationalization of multinational-owned companies and (in the case of the airlines) the founding of a new state company. During the campaign, Chávez raised the banner of “national independence,” which became the first objective in his “Program of the Fatherland for 2013-2019.”
In contrast to Chávez’s economic nationalism, Capriles defended an open door policy toward foreign investments without reference to possible government controls on the private sector. At a rally in the provincial capital of Barcelona on the second to the last day of the campaign, Capriles mocked Chávez’s slogan of independence, saying “we achieved independence two centuries ago.” He added “for me independence means paved roads, improved garbage collection and preventing blackouts.”
The two candidates were also far apart on foreign policy. The Guardian noted that Capriles “vowed a dramatic change in foreign policy” including “shifting his country away from China and Russia.” According to the article, Capriles would also “end the Chávez policy of promoting worldwide revolution and focus on Venezuela’s needs.”
Reports that Venezuela’s foreign policy is ideologically driven, however, are misleading. Chávez has been a key player in promoting Latin American unity through various organizations (UNASUR, MERCOSUR, CELAC and Petrocaribe) and in the process has built bridges with non-leftist governments (see my “The New ‘Community’ in America’s Backyard” in In These Times, May 2011). In contrast to his stormy relations with former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Chávez has maintained exceptionally friendly relations with that nation’s current president, centrist Juan Manuel Santos.
In fact, Chávez has maintained cordial relations with most countries throughout the world, with the exception of the United States, which he sometimes brands “the empire.” Nevertheless, a week before the Venezuelan elections, Chávez declared “if I were from the United States, I'd vote for Obama,” thus leaving open the possibility of an easing of tensions between the two nations in 2013.
Much of the media has put its own spin on Chávez’s impressive electoral record. Chávez is often portrayed as a demagogue whose fiery but empty rhetoric is designed to rally the masses. He is also frequently called a “populist” who knows how to win elections but not how to run the economy.
On October 5, a New York Times article titled “Fears Persist Among Venezuelan Voters Ahead of Elections” pointed to Chávez’s “many advantages over the opposition candidate… from the airwaves he controls to the government largess he doles out.” The article, however, failed to point out that the Venezuelan corporate media was heavily slanted in favor of the opposition. Nor,in suggesting that the election might be less than democratic, did it mention that leaders of the opposition, including its presidential candidate, repeatedly assured their followers that voting fraud was impossible. In fact, Jimmy Carter affirmed that of the 92 elections monitored by his Carter Center “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”
The article also claimed the electoral results might be skewed by a fear among Venezuelans that a new electronic voting system could allow the government to identify their vote. One quote in the Times’ article stands out for its flimsy evidence of this “fear factor.” The article quotes a second-year law student by the name of Fabiana Osteicoechea who was “an enthusiastic supporter” of Capriles but indicated she was going to vote for Chávez out of fear “that the government career she hoped to have as a prosecutor could be blocked if she voted the wrong way.” The Times failed to explain why someone with such an unusual name would reveal her secret voting preference to the international media. Osteicoechea’s Twitter account includes a photo of the law student kissing a Capriles poster.
Chávez's win may prompt a reexamination of relations between the government and the opposition, which, up until now, have been so polarized that neither side has recognized the other’s legitimacy. During the campaign, Capriles even refused to pledge himself to accept the official results announced by the National Electoral Council.
Signs immediately following the elections indicate that the mutual distrust may be easing. Keeping a promise he made on election day, Chávez phoned Capriles and for the first time refrained from using derogatory language against his former rival. More important, Chávez committed himself to “extending a hand” to his opponents and made a call for “national reconciliation,” which would even include business interests of all sizes. This attitude toward the organized opposition breaks with Chávez’s hardened position since 2002 when a coup overthrew him for 48 hours. In the aftermath of that event Chávez attempted to bring the opposition to the negotiating table but his opponents refused to meet the president half way and continued to plot his overthrow. Chávez subsequently indicated that his naïve efforts during those months served as a learning experience.
There is no guarantee, however, that Chávez’s national reconciliation proposal will get off the ground. Pro-government leaders have made clear that first the opposition itself needs to change. Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela, stated the day after the elections that the government was waiting to see “if a really true opposition emerges.” Chávez also makes a distinction between the “far Right”–conspiratorial, disruptive and neoliberal–and the less-radical “Right” (meaning, perhaps, the center).
In the weeks prior to the elections, several prominent opposition leaders broke off from Capriles on grounds that his program was based on radical neoliberalism. One of the dissidents, former governor David De Lima, declared that Capriles’ right-wing “Justice First” party was set on “dismantling the state,” including the elimination of social programs, and that its success could bring the country to “the door of a civil war.” De Lima claimed that not all of the pro-Capriles coalition partners favor this approach and that some resent the efforts of the Justice First party to gain the upper hand within the opposition bloc.
Of course, government flexibility toward its adversaries may be designed to foster divisions in the opposition. In any case, the new approach of pro-Chávez leaders represents a break with their previous policy of viewing the opposition as monolithic and at the service of foreign interests.
Nor is it clear how far Chávez will actually go to seek reconciliation. Negotiations with the opposition imply a willingness to make concessions, which is contrary to Chávez’s strategy of seizing opportunities to deepen the process of change without allowing critics to weigh in.
All major opposition leaders firmly resist the use of massive government expenditures to finance ambitious goals. Up until now, the programs that Chávez claims create the conditions for “socialism” have been financed by windfall oil revenue. Thus, for instance, expropriations to bolster the nation’s mixed economy are designed to allow state companies to compete with private ones in hopes of controlling inflation, which at over 20 percent is the highest in the continent. Another costly and ambitious area of investment has been community councils, which receive financing to carry out their own public works projects and to form what the government calls “communes.” The main opposition parties may be divided with regard to the role of the state, but none of them go along with the type of transformation to which Chávez is committed.
Thus, entering his fourth term, Hugo Chávez is at a strategy crossroads. The continuation of far-reaching programs that invigorate the rank and file will meet resistance from opposition leaders who claim they are not sustainable over the long run. On the other hand, major concessions to the opposition would run the risk of dampening the enthusiasm of his followers. While the strategies of change and national reconciliation may not be mutually exclusive, it will take considerable political skill to combine the two in ways that overcome the intense political schisms that have divided Venezuela in recent years.
Steve Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia Universitys. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).