Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday's presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.
Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.
The other half, as the Venezuelan dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal observed this morning, feels empowered by the social envy (el resentimiento social) that Chavez has turned into a revolutionary dogma. Says Duquenal,
[They]…hate people like me. Maybe not to the point of killing me, but to the point of trying to screw me any way they can…Now in Venezuela you will have all the trouble in the world to manage employees…to demand that public servants do the job they are appointed to do. Because if you feel that you have rights, then they will see you as a direct impingement on their comfort.
However deflated Capriles may feel today, he has won a victory of sorts. Without question, had he been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely. But in Venezuela, elections are stacked against the opposition from the outset. Whereas Capriles was permitted just three minutes of airtime daily, there were no limits on Chavez's cadenas, his trademark one-man broadcasts that often last for several hours. Nor was Chavez short of tame media outlets hailing him as the leader of socialism in its 21st century mutation.
Chavez was never obliged to debate Capriles on issues of policy. Instead, he chose to demonize his opponent, casually throwing around epithets like "pig," "Nazi," and "little bourgeois." Anti-Semitism too played a central role in Chavez's messaging. Though Capriles is a committed Catholic, he descends, on his mother's side, from Polish Jews who arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust. Chavez, whose principal political mentor was Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian Holocaust denier, seized on these origins with the gusto of a Julius Streicher. Cartoons lampooning Capriles often showed him wearing a Star of David. Among the many vicious profiles of Capriles in the pro-Chavez media was one by Adal Hernandez, a Chavista radio commentator, which carried the title "The Enemy is Zionism."
Most of all, Chavez was able to call on the resources of the state to fund his campaign. PVDSA, the state-owned oil company responsible for the petroleum revenues, which make up 95 percent of the country's foreign export earnings, has been cannibalized by the regime for all manner of pet political projects, from low-impact social programs aimed at capturing the votes of Venezuela's poorer voters to subsidized oil programs for fellow tyrannies like Cuba and Belarus.
In a context like this one, Capriles's achievement in winning 46 percent of the vote—Chavez's previous challenger, Manuel Rosales, won only 37 percent in the 2006 election—is quite remarkable. Hence, while it is true that Chavez is now, as the Economist put it, "six years closer" to his goal of remaining president until 2031, Capriles has emerged as the focal point of a re-energized opposition. "He has become the indisputable leader of the opposition and his face-to-face work is a key asset for the future," said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the Datanalisis polling company, whose polls over the last few months showed Capriles steadily gaining on, but never quite surpassing, Chavez
The personal touch that Leon alludes to is what endeared Capriles to so many voters. Denied serious access to the media, his response was to meet the voters in person in more than 300 locations across Venezuela, earning himself nicknames like "Road Runner" and "Marathon Man" in the process. Part of the aim here was to contrast the young, good-looking and energetic Capriles with the ailing, portly, and remote Chavez—and it worked.
In defeat, then, the Venezuelan opposition has never looked stronger. As well as marshaling the support that crystallized around him during the campaign, Capriles can also call on the willingness of Venezuelan democrats to confront the regime, as they did in 2007, when Chavez's attempt to abolish presidential term limits was defeated, and again in 2009, when Chavez railroaded these same proposals through, bypassing Venezuela's congress in the process.
And once the Chavista celebrations have died down, Venezuelans will realize that when it comes to the two key questions that faced the country on the eve of the election—the economy and Chavez's own health—nothing has changed. Thanks to Chavez, Venezuela's enormous debt burden, currently at $140 billion, will continue to rise. A currency devaluation is likely in the next few months. And in marked contrast to the other members of OPEC, Venezuela has been forced to cut its oil production, since PVDSA is no longer run by professional bureaucrats but by Chavista loyalists who have no idea how to run an efficient oil industry.
As for Chavez's health, he claims he has been cured from cancer. Given that he never provided details of his illness in the first place, there is no reason to believe that his Cuban doctors have successfully banished the disease. At the moment, therefore, it is reasonable to think that cancer will get rid of Chavez before an election does. In nearly all tyrannies, the death of the leader is followed by bitter struggles among his followers; and when that happens, Capriles will be waiting.