Chavez wave

Print edition : December 29, 2006

Chavez. - AFP /JUAN BARRETO

The re-election of the President signals the failure of the U.S.-aided right wing to gain predominance in the country.

THERE was never any doubt about the outcome of the presidential election in Venezuela held on December 3. From the outset, the speculation was only about the margin of victory of President Hugo Chavez. Initially, there was fear that the Opposition, in order to cast doubts about the credibility of the democratic process, would once again boycott the election. It had stayed away from the Assembly elections last year. This time too, there was an attempt by some influential Opposition politicians, inspired by Washington, to keep out of the electoral fray on frivolous grounds.

However, better sense prevailed. The Opposition put up its most credible face, Manuel Rosales, the Governor of the oil-rich State of Zulia, as its candidate against Chavez. Rosales, who described himself as a centre-left candidate, mimicked Chavez on the campaign trail by talking of justice and elimination of poverty. But he could not brush off the tag of being the candidate of the Venezuelan elite. Rosales had supported the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed coup against Chavez in April 2002. At election meetings, he accused Chavez of being a puppet of Cuban President Fidel Castro and alleged that Venezuela was being turned into a one-party state like Cuba.

In the end, Rosales did manage to get 38 per cent of the vote, reflecting the polarised nature of the electorate. Around 75 per cent of the population in Venezuela is poor. The elite and a significant section of the middle class are still not reconciled to the Bolivarian revolution started by Chavez after he came to power in 1998. It therefore came as a pleasant surprise to him and many other leaders in Latin America when the Opposition gracefully accepted defeat.

Some leading figures in the Opposition had in fact called for protests and military intervention even before people cast their votes. Rafael Polio, a prominent Opposition figure, told an Opposition-controlled television channel that Manuel Rosales needs "to lead the protests against the fraud that has been set up" (referring to the election process). He suggested that Rosales should ask the military high command to "decide if it is going to continue forcing the Venezuelan Opposition to put up with an embarrassing regime". This statement was made a month before Venezuela went to the polls.

Rosales did not fall prey to the blandishments of the extreme right-wing fringe and accepted the result, which was certified as transparent, fair and free. The European Union (E.U.), the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center had sent election observers. The Opposition had initially objected to electronic voting. To allay its fears, the Election Commission authorised election officials to fingerprint voters. Fingerprinting effectively prevents double voting. Even the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela had to concede that the ideological battle in the country was being waged through the ballot box. In the last couple of years, the Chavez government has brought about a sea change in the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, helped to some extent by the oil bonanza the country has reaped. Hospitals, educational institutions and food kitchens have reached the remotest corners of the country. Economic growth is predicted to be over 10 per cent next year. Currently it is at 9 per cent. Side by side, private enterprise is also booming. According to the latest Census figures released by the Venezuelan government, the number of families living in poverty dropped from 49 per cent in 1998 to 33.9 per cent in early 2006. Households living in extreme poverty have fallen from 17.1 per cent to 10.6 per cent in the same period. Even the World Bank conceded that Venezuela had made "substantial" progress in combating poverty after Chavez took over. Crime, corruption and unemployment continue to be problems. But these issues paled into insignificance before the gains made by the Bolivarian revolution in the social and economic sectors.

The margin of victory achieved by Chavez is the biggest in the recent history of Latin America. Out of the 12 million votes cast, Chavez won 7.2 million. In his victory speech, he had a word of praise for the "responsible Opposition" for conceding defeat. He said that the people had voted for a "socialist plan". Chavez dedicated his victory to Fidel Castro. Because of the election, Chavez could not attend the 80th birthday celebrations of the Cuban leader. Castro was the first head of state he visited after he was elected for the first time in 1998. Castro has on several occasions said that he considers Chavez his revolutionary heir.

Chavez also described his victory as a blow to U.S. President George W. Bush, whom he famously called the "devil" in a speech in the United Nations General Assembly in September. Chavez constantly reminded the voters that there were only two real candidates fighting the Venezuelan elections - "Hugo Chavez and George `Devil' Bush". It was not surprising that one of the first statements he made after his victory pertained to Bush. "It is another defeat for the empire of Mr. Danger," he told his cheering supporters on the day the Opposition candidate conceded defeat. He also told them that his victory had sent a message to the world that imperialism could be defeated and the creation of a "new world" was possible.

Supporters of Chavez at his closing campaign rally in Caracas on November 26.-REUTERS/JORGE SILVA

Chavez now has a clear mandate to rule until 2013. Tackling corruption is going to be one of his immediate priorities. In his victory speech, he said that the Venezuelan people would have to "redouble the battle against counter-revolution, that is, bureaucracy and corruption; we need new and true Bolivarian morals". While on the campaign trail, Chavez had promised to widen further the role of the public sector and cooperatives. He had also emphasised the need to unify the different parties supporting him into one cohesive revolutionary party. In a recent speech, he said that the Bolivarian revolution was entering a new stage. He has hinted that he would like to be in power until 2021 to oversee the transformation of the country into a true revolutionary democracy.

The impact of the Chavez victory seems to have further shaken the Bush administration, isolated as it is on the world stage. It is Latin America that has once again taken the lead in electing leaders who are avowedly anti-imperialist. When Chavez was first elected, he was virtually the only radical leader, barring Fidel Castro, in the region. Today, the map of the region has virtually undergone a sea change. In the last two months, Nicaragua and Ecuador elected left-wing governments. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil was re-elected by an impressive majority in October. Recent elections have shown that the Left has re-emerged as a formidable force in key countries such as Mexico, Peru and Colombia. Chavez's hopes of fulfilling Simon Bolivar's dream of unifying the entire continent could become a reality. Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina have taken some preliminary steps towards economic integration. Chavez's brainchild, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ABSA) meant to counter the Washington-inspired Free Trade Zone for the Americas, may gain new members with the election of left-wing governments in Nicaragua and Ecuador.

South America has been ripe for revolution for some time. The people there have witnessed the ravages of globalisation first hand. One out of four people in Latin America live in poverty. Only sub-Saharan Africa has more unequal distribution of wealth. The richest 10 per cent of the population in Latin America corners 48 per cent of the total income. The continent was waiting for leaders like Chavez, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, who all speak an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist language. The Economics Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, has praised Chavez and Morales for re-negotiating oil and gas contracts with Western multinationals for the benefit of the people. Before the election of Chavez in 1998, Venezuela was mainly viewed as a dependable supplier of petroleum to the U.S. The U.S. consumed 60 per cent of Venezuela's oil output and supplied 45 per cent of the country's imports.

In the last couple of years, Venezuela has been trying to diversify its oil market. The government is now in total control of the country's energy sector after putting down the elite-inspired white-collar strike that had sought to paralyse the PDVSA (the country's oil company which until 2002 virtually functioned as a state within a state). The government increased the royalty rates paid by foreign companies from 16.33 per cent to 30 per cent. A new extraction tax has been imposed and the income tax on foreign oil companies has been raised. New government laws require that majority control in any new venture stays with the PDVSA.

Opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales.-ANDRES LEIGHTON/AP

Venezuelan oil will soon start flowing in large quantities to China and other countries in Asia and Latin America. Chavez has warned Washington that if there is any attempt to foment another coup in the country, then the U.S. can forget about Venezuelan oil. Venezuelan oil exports account for 11 per cent of all U.S. oil imports. At the same time, Venezuela under Chavez has been providing oil at highly subsidised rates to many Latin American and Caribbean countries. Venezuela's help was crucial for many Caribbean countries to tide over the economic crisis caused when oil prices peaked in the last two years.

Chavez has never hidden his desire to combat the pernicious American influence in his region. He now has key allies not only in Latin America but also in other parts of the world. The failure of the Bush administration to defeat Venezuela and get its proxy candidate Guatemala elected to the U.N. Security Council, is a measure of its growing influence on the world stage. President Bush had personally requested many world leaders to vote against Venezuela. In Latin America, one of Chavez's immediate goals is to eliminate the American military presence in the region. The newly elected President of Ecuador, a self-professed admirer of Chavez, has said that he will ask the Americans to vacate their base in that country. Venezuela is now buying its planes, tanks and other weaponry from countries such as Russia. More than a million civilians are being trained to use weapons for self-defence.

The Bush administration in response to the growing radicalisation of the region, is trying to resort to desperate means to restore its waning influence. On October 2, Bush signed a waiver that authorises the U.S. administration to extend once again training to all the armies in the region. Under the U.S. International Military and Education Training Act, the American military will share doctrine and strategy while developing relationships with mid-level officers who within five to 10 years could be running the military in many of the Latin American countries. In April 2005, Chavez had threatened to terminate all military ties with the U.S. after expelling two American diplomats whom he accused of inciting dissent in the Venezuelan Army. In the 1970s and 1980s, army officers trained by the U.S. military had overthrown democratically elected governments and launched a brutal campaign against progressive forces. Thousands of people were killed in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries. Many more "disappeared".

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