Tainted opposition failed to win back voters' trust


The president’s policy of redistributing oil wealth to the poor remains electorally unbeatable, writes TOM HENNIGAN

IN THE end it was not even close.

Despite an erratic campaign haunted by rumours about his health, Hugo Chávez still defeated the best effort yet by the opposition to bring to a close his near-14-year-old “Bolivarian Revolution” by more than a million votes.

Handicapped by running against an incumbent who blatantly used the state apparatus to support his candidacy, Henrique Capriles can take some comfort from the fact that he has boosted the anti-Chávez vote by more than two million since the opposition’s pathetic showing in the 2006 presidential contest, but the reality is the gap with chavismo is still more than 10 points.

The debate about whether the president is really a socialist or just another Latin populist will continue, but in a country where there is a deep chasm between haves and have-nots, his policy of redistributing the country’s oil wealth to the poor remains electorally unbeatable despite accusations by Capriles of incompetence and corruption.

Still tainted by its involvement in a botched coup in 2002 and its previous association with the corrupt political order that was swept away by Chávez in 1998, the opposition failed to convince enough Venezuelans that it could be trusted with a return to power.

Chávez said his victory was a vote for socialism. He now has another six years in power to consolidate his revolution.

This has always been less popular among voters than his own personal appeal. His battle with cancer and the lack of any heir apparent mean that many within chavismo know that an urgent priority will be to develop a new generation of leaders – a difficult task in a government where power is increasingly centralised in Chávez’s hands.

The president’s victory will also be a huge relief for allies in the region. Cuba and Nicaragua receive subsidised Venezuelan oil worth billions of dollars each year. In the Bolivarian Revolution, the communist regime in Cuba has found an ally to replace the Soviet Union, whose collapse in 1991 plunged the Caribbean island into the euphemistically named “special period” of economic turmoil.

Also happy to see Chávez win will be Brazil and Argentina. The governments in Brasília and Buenos Aires have leveraged their status as left-wing allies of Chávez to aggressively promote trade with Venezuela, which is now an important source of lucrative contracts for their manufacturing, construction and food companies.

Capriles’s advisers had promised to review all contracts signed with Chávez’s foreign allies.

But even with the president’s re-election, there are doubts over the sustainability of the Bolivarian Revolution’s generous economic model. Despite the high price of oil – which accounts for about 90 per cent of Venezuela’s exports – Venezuela has become increasingly indebted in recent years as Chávez has ramped up public spending. Economists say some belt-tightening will be inevitable. If not, investment bank Morgan Stanley has even warned of the possibility of default.

Chávez could of course save billions each year by asking Venezuelan motorists to pay more than the current €0.01 a litre for petrol, a massive subsidy skewered towards the better-off that long predates his arrival in power in 1999.

But in a country with an exaggerated belief in its own wealth thanks to the oil reserves, belt-tightening is political dynamite. The last effort to raise fuel prices in Venezuela led to the Caracazo of 1989, an explosion of protests and looting that left up to 3,000 people dead.

If cuts have to be made, Chávez could well ask his allies to shoulder the burden before he does his own voters.