December 5, 2006
To no one's surprise, Venezuelan President-for-Life Hugo Chavez was reelected to a third six-year term on Sunday, defeating Manuel Rosales by a 62%-38% margin. This was slightly more than his margin of victory in the August 2004 recall referendum. Only minor irregularities were reported, and it appears that the vote was an accurate barometer of public sentiment. Millions of poor Venezuelans who benefitted from his social welfare programs are deeply devoted to Chavez. Although he managed a modicum of dignity by paying tribute to "the responsible opposition," Chavez celebrated by repeating his childish taunt of President Bush: "It's another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world." One of the first items on his agenda of "21st Century socialism" is doing away with term limits, permitting him to maintain power indefinitely. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, whose young face contradicts his surname, declared "The U.S. elite will have to acknowledge the strength of the Bolivarian revolution..." Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa derided the leftwing movement exemplified by Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Peru's Ollanta Humala (who lost to Alan Garcia) as "prehistoric," contrasting them to the democratic leftist governments in Chile and Brazil. See BBC and El Universal.
Lest we freedom-loving Americans become despondent over the triumph of retrograde populist caudillismo (bossism, roughly translated), we should bear in mind a few mitigating factors: thanks to high gasoline prices, Venezuela is flush with petro-dollars, giving Chavez a huge electoral cushion as he tosses around money like it's Christmas. For him, this election was a slam dunk. Those huge rallies consist largely of government or public sector employees whose jobs would be in jeopardy if they declined to participate, or other people who get a free meal and some cash. Thus, the support for Chavez is less "deep" than it might appear to the casual observer. Over time, such contrived public demonstrations become harder to sustain, as more people become cynical about the government's outright manipulation of public opinion.
Even though Chavez won by a large margin, the fact that the opposition has reorganized since the failed general strike of 2004-2005 raises hope that the leader's stratospheric ambitions will be held in check. Rival candidate Manuel Rosales, of the western oil-producing state of Zulia, is young and has established a good rapport with many Venezuelans. The diplomatic setbacks suffered by Venezuela in recent months -- above all, the failed effort to gain a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council -- have undermine popular support back home as well. Many of the more educated people are shamed by their president's clownish behavior at the United Nations and other international fora. One can only imagine how professional diplomats who are obliged to represent the Chavez government must feel. Photos of the election can be seen at Publius Pundit, which notes that turnout was below average in the upscale areas of Caracas, where new fingerprint identification machines are used.
These fingerprint machines, made by Cogent, based in Pasadena, are basically units of delay and intimidation. They have been shown to match voters to their votes, and Venezuela's voters already know that being found to not vote for Chavez is a recipe for government reprisals.
In the United States, ironically, it is among the lower classes where most complaints about voter intimidation are heard. To promote his regional integration plans, Chavez will begin a tour of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and, possibly, Paraguay. Relations with Peru remain cool.
President Bush wisely took the time to extend good wishes to the newly elected president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who reciprocated by hailing Bush's "noble" gesture. See CNN.com. After the leftist Correa is inaugurated president of Ecuador in January, a summit between that Hugo Chavez and him will surely take place.