THE WASHINGTON TIMES
December 5, 2006
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opposition leaders took comfort yesterday in newfound unity and political maturity despite a crushing defeat at the hands of President Hugo Chavez, who has pledged to use his mandate to push Venezuela even further to the left.
Several independent analysts agreed that the opposition's respectable run and graceful concession signaled that it has become a force to be reckoned with, especially if Mr. Chavez overplays his hand.
With 85 percent of the ballots counted, Mr. Chavez had won more than 6 million votes, or 61 percent, compared with his conservative rival, Manuel Rosales, who garnered nearly 4 million, or 38 percent. Some 25 percent of eligible voters stayed home.
"That means that some 40 percent of Venezuelans, plus the non-voters, have said they do not identify with the radical [agenda]," said Milos Alcalay, who served as Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Chavez from 2001 to 2004.
Mr. Alcalay, who also served as an ambassador in other Venezuelan governments over three decades, was concerned by the fiery speech that Mr. Chavez gave supporters at the presidential palace Sunday night.
"If the message he gave is to be followed, it is very, very worrisome," Mr. Alcalay said. "In the rest of Latin America, the candidates who have won elections have called for national unity. But he called for the radicalization of the revolution."
In his speech to throngs of jubilant, rain-soaked supporters, Mr. Chavez ignored class frictions and promised to deepen the socialist revolution he began nine years ago.
"Long live the socialist revolution, destiny has been written," he said, adding later that "no one should fear socialism; socialism is human, socialism is love."
He dedicated the election victory to Cuba and Fidel Castro, his ideological mentor, and cast the election victory as a defeat for President Bush, whom he again referred to as "the devil."
Mr. Alcalay praised Mr. Rosales for calmly accepting defeat on Sunday night and calling on his supporters to do the same while carrying on their fight.
He said the opposition leader had come across as "a real statesmen who recognizes he lost an election but who has shown a message of unity that's stronger than the one of the Chavez state."
Cristina Marcano, author of the Chavez biography "Chavez Out of Uniform" pointed out that the president received fewer votes than he had anticipated.
"He expected 10 million [votes], and he didn't get it," she said. "He wanted [his victory] to be more profound so he could proceed without resistance. What this says is that if he does things too radically, there could be problems, that 40 percent could rise up."
Miss Marcano said the strong statements during the victory address could be mere "rhetorical games," noting that he often makes bold statements only to roll them back later.
Leftist politicians from Brazil to Argentina and Uruguay have come to power attacking U.S.-backed economic policies in recent years. But they have nonetheless maintained strong trade ties with Washington.
Mr. Chavez is no exception, many here say. Despite his rabid attacks on Mr. Bush, Venezuela maintains strong trade links with the United States, its most important economic partner.
The Bush administration, which has taken pains not to be drawn into a war of words with Mr. Chavez, responded cautiously to the election outcome.
Despite some "well-reported friction" with Mr. Chavez, "we hope we would have a positive and constructive relationship with the new Venezuelan government," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
"On some issues, such as counternarcotics, we have been able to work pretty effectively with the Venezuelan government," Mr. McCormack said. "Obviously, when you see some of the rhetoric, it can make things more difficult, but that does not preclude us from working together."
• David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.