Hugo Chávez to 'deepen' revolution as opponents miss mark

Chávez's victory last night gives him another six-year term, frustrating opponents who say his policies and management style have squandered the country's biggest-ever oil boom.

Fernando Llano/AP
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez waves to the press upon his arrival to a polling station during the presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won a mandate to stay in office for another six years, giving him and his allies a chance to consolidate the "Bolivarian 21st-century Socialism" that they have promoted for the past 14 years.

Mr. Chávez's campaign vowed to keep his policies on their present course. It's a path that frustrates opponents, who say his policies and management style have squandered the country's biggest-ever oil boom on unfinished projects, wasteful sole-source contracts, and aid to other countries. But the status quo is just fine with many Chávez supporters celebrating in the street.

"This reaffirms the revolutionary process in Venezuela," says Blanca Paredes, a self-employed dessert-maker, at a spontaneous street party in the overwhelmingly anti-Chávez borough of Chacao. "I want to see continuation of the housing policies, the inclusion of the poor, youth employment, and also policies that limit crime." She quibbled with some policies, like currency controls, but says Chávez is on the right track.

In the lead-up to the election, the government committed itself to building millions of new homes, among other expanded social programs. The challenge will now be to fulfill these promises, as the country faces many demands on its checkbook. It has been advancing the development of the Orinoco Belt, the world's biggest oil deposit. That will cost $250 billion over the next six years, the state oil company says.

"Half of Venezuela doesn't like the revolution," says Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela. "Some of the supporters of Chávez complain about the inefficiency of the Bolivarian revolution."

Opposition fails to shed image of oligarchs

The opposition backed a youthful candidate this year – Henrique Capriles Radonski – surrounding him with campaigners who were barely out of university when Chávez first burst onto the political scene in 1992.

But the opposition was unable to shed its decade-old image of being right-wing oligarchs with pretensions to dictatorship. That stereotype of the opposition largely comes from a period of instability in 2002 and 2003, when opponents of Chávez mounted a strike in the oil industry, led massive street marches, and briefly ousted the president in a coup.

"The opposition is in shock and retreat," says Francisco Toro of "Caracas Chronicles," an English-language blog about Venezuela. "I don't see people rushing to take the mantle of opposition leader."

Thousands of Chávez opponents flew to Venezuela for yesterday's vote, such as Manuel Ochoa, who has lived in Virginia for 20 years.

"If Chávez wins, it would be painful, but you have to keep fighting," he said before the results were announced.

An emotional connection

But for Ms. Paredes, the dessert-maker, and many others in Venezuela, Chávez's victory was in fact a relief. His campaign hammered home the message that his opponent, Mr. Capriles, would eliminate social programs, privatize the country's $120 billion-a-year oil company, and boost transit fares. The fear factor was powerful among voters interviewed on the street yesterday in Caracas, who said they didn't trust the challenger to maintain Chavez's social programs.

"Chávez has helped my family a lot," says Kimberley Pérez, a student taking time off as she is expecting a baby in January. "Capriles is making promises, but I don't believe him. It won't be the same. He's going to take away the missions."

The election result vindicated Chávez’s strategy of emphasizing his emotional connection with voters. His slogan was "Chavez, heart of my fatherland." And his fans took things further: "He who doesn't vote for Chávez doesn't love his mother," say some stickers posted around the capital.

Which ideas will be fulfilled?

It is difficult to know which of the government's big ideas will be fulfilled. The blueprint for the president's fourth term in office, his Candidate Proposal for the Fatherland for the Bolivarian socialist term 2013-2019, has five primary goals: to become more independent, increase control over natural resources, boost energy output, unite Latin America, and improve the environment. However, some of the specifics in the plan, such as boosting employment in mining, have been in the plans for years, even as non-oil industries in the country wither.

The country's crime rate drew international attention during the campaign, although pollsters said crime worries wouldn't change the vote of many Venezuelans. Chávez has gradually implemented a new national police force with better discipline, training, and pay than its predecessors. But a former law enforcement professional who now provides risk analysis on the country said there's no quick fix.

"Crime isn't going to change in the short term, because there's nothing you can do about it," says the ex-officer, who requested anonymity to protect his safety. "There's no police presence and if you do get caught, there's no criminal justice system. They would need to restructure the justice system, restructure the police, and pay the officers more."

Expropriations of private businesses will continue under the new administration, Vice President Elias Jaua told Reuters today. Prior nationalizations have walloped foreign investment and politicized the country's oil, fertilizer, and steel businesses.

The most important issue is how best to develop and control the country's oil. Venezuela has the world's largest proven reserves, and exports bring in an estimated $3,000 a year per resident.

Those revenues are crucial for funding the kind of programs Ms. Perez supports, including free homes for some victims of natural disasters, low-price appliances, and adult literacy and high-school equivalency programs.

Foreign policy

The Chávez victory will certainly mean a continuation of his foreign policy, in which he seeks to undermine US power by supporting governments that oppose the United States and tightening commercial and governmental ties with China, Russia, and other smaller economies in order to reduce global dependence on the US. 

Venezuela has shipped tankers of diesel to Syria during its ongoing crackdown on protesters, and Chávez supported Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to the end. Venezuela has become the most important patron of Cuba's half-century-old communist revolution, and the state oil company is under limited US sanctions for dealing with Iran.

The oil exporter has borrowed $42.5 billion from China in the last five years, according to Bloomberg. The debts, largely used to buy Chinese goods such as home appliances and satellites, are paid down with oil.  

'Clean the bureaucrats out of the revolution'

Last night, Chávez thanked the public for voting "for socialism." But he will have to continue to navigate a course between ideological socialists and communists in his movement, and the many supporters who are more interested in handouts or lucrative contracts.

Posters in Caracas from a socialist group outside of Chávez's party say "Oct. 7 vote for Chávez, Oct. 8 clean the bureaucrats out of the revolution."

And even those who wear socialist red T-shirts can't always resist the urge to take part in capitalist vices, frequently decried by the president. On election day, when alcohol sales were outlawed nationwide, teens in red shirts spent the day selling beer on the street in the Catia neighborhood of Caracas, a Chávez stronghold. "Sales are better on election day," one said.

Though the presidency has been decided, neither Chávez nor his opponents can rest: Gubernatorial elections are scheduled for December. In the last round of elections, in 2008, an opposition candidate surprised the pro-government side by winning a pro-government area – that was the state of Miranda, where Henrique Capriles Radonsky beat Chávez ally Diosdado Cabello.

Editor's note: The name of the candidate proposal was misstated in an earlier version of this story.

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