Venezuela’s Next Inning

Chávez may have won another election, but it's the opposition that should be celebrating.


Just months after he was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998, at an event in Washington organized by the Inter-American Dialogue, Hugo Chávez was asked how he would maintain a democratic equilibrium absent an effective opposition. Chávez, an avid baseball fan, was quick to respond. "That’s not my problem," he quipped, "I field my team — the other side fields theirs. That’s how the game is played."

But Team Chávez is one dynasty that looks a lot less dominant than it was back then. He won his first election with a 16-point margin. The following contests — in 2000 and 2006 — he won even more resoundingly, by 22 and 26 points, respectively. On Sunday, Oct. 7, the populist leader vanquished his fourth challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. This time, however, the gap had shrunk to 10 percentage points. And, most crucially, the country’s political tenor had dramatically changed.

In the end, Chávez prevailed by relying on the magic formula that has worked so well for him (and for all populists) — he spent lots of public money on an array of consumer goods, housing, and other benefits for his supporters to guarantee their political loyalty. In this case, keenly aware of his increased vulnerability, Chávez cranked up the patronage machinery nurtured over his nearly 14-year rule and engaged in a spending orgy to neutralize a superior opposition challenge. Although Venezuela’s economy is deeply troubled, it still helps to be sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves. PDVSA, the state petroleum company, though suffering sharp declines in production and investment, nonetheless had enough money to sustain Chávez’s social programs.

Chávez, who came to power by identifying with the legitimate grievance of social injustice felt by many Venezuelans, also proved that he retains a powerful sentimental bond with the country’s poor. Since being stricken with cancer in June 2011, Chávez, 58, has slowed down considerably, as reflected in the latest campaign. But his charisma and seductive rhetoric haven’t disappeared. And his control over the media and key government institutions is intact.

Beyond Chávez’s notable staying power, however, the big story emerging from the election was the impressive challenge mounted by a unified opposition. Capriles, a former governor elected in a primary contest last February, ran a remarkably smart campaign. For the first time, a Chávez challenger directly competed for the Venezuelan president’s core constituency — the very poor. He wisely advanced a social democratic agenda and invoked Brazil’s popular former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as his political model.

Capriles did not deny that many of the poor had benefited under Chávez’s rule (keep in mind that oil was only $10 a barrel when he came into office). Rather, he persuasively made the case that the tremendous opportunity to improve the well-being of most Venezuelans — in a political environment marked by consensus, not polarization and rancor — had been squandered. He noted the country’s dismal governance — as exemplified by decaying infrastructure, shortages of basic goods, and skyrocketing crime — relative to the ample resources at its disposal. He developed well-thought-out alternative proposals for governing Venezuela.

What’s more, Capriles, unlike many other opposition figures (and often the United States in years past), remained refreshingly focused and disciplined in the face of Chávez’s characteristic taunts and provocations. In comments broadcast on state television on Sept. 10, Chávez said, "He’s a little rich boy dressed up as a poor kid from the barrio." Chávez also charged that Capriles, who comes from a family of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors, belongs to a "fascist" Catholic group. Capriles ably defended himself, but by refusing to go for Chávez’s bait, he was never thrown off balance. He gave Venezuelans a taste of what nonconfrontational politics would be like.

Fighting an uphill battle — Capriles had often referred to the election as David vs. Goliath, echoing the president’s own rhetoric about his struggle against the United States — the opposition garnered 45 percent of the vote, no mean feat given Chávez’s access to state resources and control over much of the media. Compared with the last presidential election in 2006, Chávez’s support shrank substantially. In the final weeks of the campaign, Capriles had the momentum and, with more time, might have overtaken Chávez or at least made the outcome tighter.

But the most notable accomplishment of Capriles and the opposition movement he leads was not this election’s result, as impressive as it was, but rather their long-term contribution to Venezuela’s well-being, governance, and social peace. The principal concern and topic of speculation has been the potential for violence, given the deep distrust between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas and the fact that many Venezuelans, on both sides, are armed. Capriles’s conciliatory, high-minded discourse and successful electoral strategy of appealing to moderate Chávez supporters constructively shaped the political climate and prepared the country for a smooth transition, whenever that might happen. That is Capriles’s greatest legacy.

It would be naive to believe that Chávez will receive the message from this election and shift toward a more conciliatory relationship with the opposition and pursue a more moderate agenda. Rather, Chávez is likely to interpret his 55 percent result as a mandate to do what he can to deepen his 14-year Bolivarian Revolution. That translates into even more state control of the economy and further concentration of his already formidable powers. It also means continued political defiance of the United States (even though he sells the Goliath to the north a larger share of Venezuelan oil than ever) and closer ties to Iran, Russia, Cuba, Belarus, and other governments not terribly friendly toward Washington. The key question, however, is whether Chávez will succeed in carrying out an even more radical agenda in a society that is now awakened and more organized than before.

The resistance will be significant. To be sure, there is a chance that the opposition, which expected to do better on Sunday, will be demoralized and fracture. But there is no reason the opposition should not continue to exhibit the same intelligence it has shown in recent months and simply focus on methodically building its organization and support. Capriles and others will now set their eyes on critically important upcoming elections for governors in December and for mayors next April. They should not lose the moment, and the momentum.

Capriles, only 40 yet understandably disappointed by the first defeat of his political career, would be wise to be patient and persistent. After all, it took Lula, now widely regarded as Latin America’s premier political wizard, four attempts before he attained the Brazilian presidency. The United States should follow Capriles’s lead, maintain its current posture, and resist the temptation to intervene in Venezuelan politics. It is unrealistic to expect any rapprochement between the two countries, no matter who wins the U.S. elections in November.

To be sure, the situation in Venezuela remains highly uncertain. Chávez’s health is a wild card, as is the price of oil. There are a number of plausible scenarios. But what has fundamentally changed — and it’s good news for Venezuela, the region, and the United States — is that there are now two teams on the field. Chávez may still be at bat, but for the first time in 14 years, the pitcher is throwing heat.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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