By Robert Valencia
Venezuelans have spoken. Hugo Chávez hailed victorious on October 7 by clinching the presidential seat for the fourth consecutive time since 1999, with more than 7.8 million votes (54.84 percent), according to the National Electoral Council. Prior to the election, Chávez pledged that he will “crush the oligarchy” that, in his viewpoint, was represented by opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Chávez won the presidency for the next six years, he’ll be faced with a stronger opposition that, despite all the odds, narrowed the electoral race in a spectacular fashion: Capriles gained 44.55 percent of the overall votes (more than 6.3 million), a landmark number given that the opposition was unable to find common ground for the last 10 months. Therefore, the Chávez victory by no means represents the end of his party’s burgeoning counterpart; rather, it is a victory for the opposition. After 14 years of internal strife, they’ve come together to fight Chávez.
During the last decade and a half, Chávez has managed to divide Venezuela’s opposition bloc that, even earlier this year, did not have a visible leader. A perfect example of that polarization was the 2006 election, in which Chavez was re-elected with more than 62 percent of the vote, whereas then-opposition leader Manuel Rosales only earned 36 percent. This year, figures like Zulia state’s Governor Pablo Pérez Álvarez and María Corina Machado helped an opposition take shape, which was finally crystallized under the young figure of Capriles and the help of other fledgling coalitions like “Venezuela sin Mordaza” (Venezuela without a Gag), which raises awareness about the rising wave of violence and human rights violations in the South American nation.
Indeed, the opposition was running against the colossal Chavez campaign, in an electoral process many experts deemed a “David vs. Goliath” fight. Walls and buildings in Caracas were covered with Chávez’s fliers and billboards. His six-hour-long program “Aló Presidente” (Hello, President) mocked Capriles’ Jewish background. The press had scarce liberty after the shuttering of Radio Caracas Televisión and the constant threats toward TV channel Globovisión, and his refusal to hold a televised debate with Capriles provided Chávez a wide advantage. In the face of this onslaught, Capriles went on to travel across Venezuela, visiting more than 200 towns and cities to meet citizens and hear their concerns. In contrast, Chavez only visited 20 major cities. Word of mouth proved to be the strongest weapon for the Capriles campaign, as reflected by the six million votes Capriles garnered.
The opposition campaign was even recognized by Chávez on Sunday night. In the midst of “Oh, no! Chávez won’t go!” chants from Chávez supporters who clustered around the Miraflores Palace, Chávez told them from the Palace’s balcony that he praised those who “voted against him.” As a matter of fact, 18 million Venezuelans went to the polls this year, whereas 15 million people participated in the electoral process of 2006. Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union called on the new Chávez administration to consider the opposition in decision-making processes while promoting fundamental liberties in civil society.
The opposition, on the other hand, was visibly affected by Chávez’s blow in the polls. Capriles took the stage to cheer up his saddened followers, telling them, “Do not feel defeated; be proud. The road was built. We’ve planted many seeds across Venezuela.” His speech reflected the sentiment that this is not the time for the opposition to lose momentum. They must look to the upcoming governmental elections in December and the mayoral ones in April, and repeat the same formula: listen to the population’s troubles while visiting each and every Venezuelan town. When Capriles became governor of the Miranda state, he demonstrated a perfect example of how the coalition can seize key strongholds in Venezuela’s most important territories.
As noted in a previous post, Chávez’s victory will salvage the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA in Spanish) bloc that supplies oil and financial perks to the troubled economies of members like Nicaragua and Cuba, and it may have a pivotal role in the ongoing peace process in Colombia. Venezuela’s inclusion in the powerful MERCOSUR bloc will pose another test of how Chávez will be able to reduce imports and jolt the stagnant exports of goods such as meat and oil. Venezuela has to export much of its gasoline to the United States for refining, since the state-oil company PDVSA that largely contributes to Chávez’s social causes has a backlog in upgrading its refineries and infrastructure. The world will also see how much farther his flagship plan — the Bolivarian Revolution — will go into other regions of the country by possibly dismantling the current federal system and having majors and governors reporting directly to Chávez. He will strengthen bonds with Cuba, Iran, China, and Russia, as well as with unsavory regimes like those of Belarus and Syria.
But much is at stake for Chávez in the forthcoming years. His health condition may prevent him from finishing his term, and volatile oil prices and rampant social unrest may shake the foundations of his Revolution, both in Venezuela and abroad. Chávez believes his victory has cleared the way to deepening his Bolivarian blueprint, but a stronger coalition will rally around the mantra of the Capriles campaign — “There is a road” — and prove that the movement toward democratic progress displayed last Sunday night will continue. The coalition must prove it is indeed interested in improving the conditions of Venezuelans by actively participating in governorships and city halls, rather than just ambitious projects to seize the Miraflores Palace alone. This is only the first round of a long fight for Venezuela’s future — and Chávez recognizes it as such.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.