It was supposed to be a close vote; some even believed that an upset was in the works. But when the dust settled, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had won another election. This time, however, his margin of victory was considerably reduced, from 25 percentage points six years ago to about 10 percentage points on Sunday. Despite Mr. Chavez’s vow to complete the “Bolivarian revolution” he launched in 1998, he must take into account the views of the many Venezuelans who voted against him. That assumes the president will complete his six-year term — an open question given his health problems.
Mr. Chavez was a retired lieutenant colonel, best known for launching a failed coup in 1992, when he won the presidency 14 years ago. He was then, and remains, a fiery populist who has promised a socialist revolution for his country in the name of the Latin American nationalist Simon Bolivar. During his tenure in office, he has transformed Venezuelan society, using class warfare — he refers to the rich and middle class as “the squalid ones” — to bolster his support: He has nationalized private property and businesses, while providing free medical care, housing, education and food to the country’s poor.
Essential to his success is the flood of oil revenues Venezuela enjoys as a member of OPEC, the global petroleum cartel. With proven reserves putting the country in the ranks of the top 10 oil producers, oil revenues account for about 94 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, more than half of federal budget revenues, and around 30 percent of gross domestic product. Fonden, the country’s state investment fund, accounts for nearly a third of all investment in Venezuela and half of public investment; in 2011, it received 25 percent of government revenue from the oil industry. Over the last seven years, it has absorbed about $100 billion of Venezuela’s oil revenue — much of it used to buy support for Mr. Chavez.
But those investments have been less than effective. The country suffers from power shortages and regular blackouts, a decaying infrastructure, failure to provide other basic services and a pall of corruption and favoritism that hangs over all segments of the economy. More ominous still, Venezuela has the world’s fourth highest murder rate — at least it is estimated as such, since the government stopped publishing official crime statistics in 2004.
That is fertile soil for an opposition movement, and after years of division, the various groups coalesced around a candidate, Mr. Henrique Capriles. He is the 40-year old governor of Miranda state, which includes Caracas. The son of a real estate developer, he devoted special energy to press-the-flesh campaigning to counter Mr. Chavez’s message that his opponent was an elitist who cared little about the concerns of ordinary citizens.
Mr. Capriles faced two real hurdles. The first was maintaining the unity of a coalition of more then two dozen groups from across the political spectrum whose only commonality was opposition to Mr. Chavez. Divisions in the opposition had derailed previous efforts to beat the president. The second was the president’s readiness to use all the tools of state power to reinforce his message, from largesse bestowed by oil revenues to domination of the broadcast media.
The result was roughly a 10 point victory for the incumbent in last Sunday’s ballot. The National Electoral Council gave Mr. Chavez 55.25 percent of the vote, besting Mr. Capriles’ 44.14 percent, with turnout reaching about 81 percent and few reports of voting problems.
The win firmly establishes Mr. Chavez as the leading figure in contemporary Latin American politics, and the cornerstone of the left in the Western Hemisphere. He has replaced Cuban strongman Mr. Fidel Castro as the bete noir of the United States — and unlike Mr. Castro, Mr. Chavez has those oil revenues which he has used to bankroll a public relations offensive in the region.
At the same time, however, the shrinking margin of victory means that Mr. Chavez must pay greater attention to the mounting ranks of the disaffected in Venezuela. It is one thing to ignore the defeated when they are a quarter of the population; it is quite another when they are nearly one half. Consistent with that reality, after declaring victory, Mr. Chavez acknowledged that “we must respond with greater efficacy and efficiency to the needs of our people,” while continuing by saying that “I promise you I’ll be a better president.”
This assumes that Mr. Chavez can complete his term. That is by no means assured. The president has been less than forthcoming about his health, but we do know that he has at least had three operations since June 2011 and several rounds of chemotherapy to deal with pelvic cancer. If he dies or is disabled in the first four years of his term, then a new election is required, giving Mr. Capriles another shot at the presidency.
In the meantime, the country is bracing for a rough year. Many expect Mr. Chavez to speed up nationalizations to consolidate his socialist revolution precisely because of his health problems. Yet the country’s economic woes, triggered by the government’s lavish spending, is likely to force a currency devaluation in the first half of 2013 and a burst of inflation. Before that, state governors elections will be held in December, which will test the resilience of the opposition after this defeat and the ability of Mr. Capriles to maintain a coalition and keep the pressure on the president. It promises to be another fiery period for Mr. Chavez and his country.