In Hugo's hands

Por Venezuela Real - 4 de Diciembre, 2006, 19:54, Categoría: Política Nacional

December 04, 2006

Another triumph for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela probably means more concentration of power

WHEN Hugo Chávez first took office as president of Venezuela, in 1999, he made no mention of socialism. But as he celebrated another crushing victory in reasonably fair presidential elections on Sunday December 3rd the controversial leader claimed that “more than 60% of Venezuelans voted not for Chávez but for a project that has a name—Bolivarian socialism”.

Mr Chávez can certainly claim a mandate. Preliminary results gave him 61% of the votes, compared with 38% for his challenger, Manuel Rosales. But it is far from clear quite what the voters understand “Bolivarian socialism”—named after a 19th-century independence hero—to mean. Polls suggest that many people think it has something to do with social welfare projects and the redistribution of Venezuela’s substantial oil income. But most (perhaps 80%) reject any idea of adopting a Cuban-type system, despite Mr Chávez’s cosy relationship with Fidel Castro and the fondness of both men for rhetoric about their “indivisible” revolutions.

Nor does the Venezuelan president spell out what his work-in-progress entails, beyond more control for himself and his supporters. On the political front he talks of giving more “power to the people”, which means grassroots “community” councils will get more clout and resources, sidestepping bureaucracies and conventional local government. Existing political parties, whatever their leaders may think, may possibly be replaced by a single, revolutionary party. And, in a supposed bid to remove obstacles to “the people’s will”, a constitutional amendment will be proposed to let Mr Chávez run for office as many times as he likes.

Mr Chávez calls this “participatory democracy”. In reality it implies more concentration of power in his hands and a greater emphasis on his semi-religious rapport with the masses. The only institution that is likely to be strengthened is the armed forces, which increasingly resembles a revolutionary militia under the direct control of the president himself.

It is not obvious where all this leaves the opposition. The president made an effort to be magnanimous in victory by dedicating a few “words of recognition” to his adversaries, acknowledging their respect for the democratic rules. But Mr Chávez does not always play by these himself. Perhaps carried away by the campaign, he declared in his closing rally in Caracas, the capital, that there was “no room in Venezuela for any model other than the Bolivarian revolution”.

For his part Mr Rosales, the social democratic governor of the western state of Zulia, was quick to concede defeat, though he questioned Mr Chávez’s margin of victory. Despite strong pressure from the radical wing of the opposition to take to the streets, he rejected calls to challenge the overall result. He is presumably hoping to unite the opposition, and to invigorate it for later elections. But that will require his attracting large numbers of “chavistas”—a task that may be made easier if Mr Chávez decides to take unpopular steps towards Cuban-style socialism.

Economically, Mr Chávez may declare tighter restrictions on private enterprise which already chafes under price and exchange controls and is likely to face import restrictions too. He likes to call capitalism the root of all evil, and opposes proposals by the United States, and others, for more free-trade in Latin America. He says he would “replace” capitalism with a system based on “solidarity” and barter, with a strong role for co-operatives and what he calls “social production companies”, which redistribute all or part of their profits to the needy. But in all these areas the details remain hazy.

Coming close on the heels of the victories of left-leaning candidates such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the Venezuelan result may lead some to conclude that the populist left is sweeping all before it in the region. But the Venezuelan model, which depends almost entirely on a strong state, fuelled by massive flows of petro-dollars, has yet to prove that it can be reproduced elsewhere, or that it can be sustained when the oil price drops. If he is to govern, as he intends, for another quarter of a century, Mr Chávez will no doubt have to devise a more sustainable system.

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