Enrique ter Horst
International Herald Tribune
December 7, 2006
CARACAS: Last Sunday, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was re- elected to another six-year term. Caracas was a ghost town the next day, rocked by the stunning explosions of the fireworks, which were more intimidating than celebratory.
But while Chávez has reason to celebrate - his 62 percent in the polling is the highest score he has achieved in any election since gaining power in 1998 - so does Manuel Rosales, the defeated opposition leader.
Rosales's electoral rebuff is a political victory, as he has succeeded in unifying the opposition around a modern and focused social democratic program. It's important to note that Rosales moved in the polls from 3 percent in August to almost 40 percent three months later. A true democrat, Rosales is politically much closer to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil than Chávez.
Chávez has interpreted his victory as an endorsement of his proposed "21st-century Socialism" - a version of Fidel Castro's collectivist revolution. Chávez has deliberately kept his plan hazy, but it is as dogmatic as Castro's program, and probably just as repressive. It's not a good fit for Venezuela, however, as all citizens, including the president's most committed followers, are owners of something (many are even conspicuous consumers). Very few Chávez supporters understand the implications of his ideas.
Chávez controls all branches of the government, including the judiciary, the armed forces, the electoral authority and the national oil company. The large minority now opposing Chávez will look to Rosales to ensure that the regime respects its rights. With Parliament also completely controlled by the Chávez camp, the opposition has no alternative but to push for its demands on the street.
Chávez has indicated that in his next term he will reform the Constitution to allow for his indefinite re-election. Also, next year the government is likely to implement laws that will restrict freedom of association and expression, expand the concept of national security, give a strong ideological twist to the education program, initiate the militarization of society, and strictly control international support to local nongovernmental organizations. Chávez has also threatened not to renew next year the transmission licenses of two television stations that fiercely oppose him.
In his first press conference after his defeat, Rosales proposed a constitutional reform that would consecrate programs for Venezuela's poorest, decentralize the government, reduce the presidential term of office, and effectively protect private property. Rosales's success will determine how large the risk of violence will become, and how long he will be the leader of Chávez's increasingly restless opponents.
In the present climate, it is probably impossible to carry out a dogmatic, neocommunist revolution in Venezuela. The enormous amount of oil money has transformed the regime into a gang of accomplices, much in the mold of Haiti in the time of François Duvalier, and the socialist discourse and other ideological rituals only provide the regime with a fig leaf for what is already fast becoming a mafia- type power structure. The seeds of its destruction are already within it, even though it might take time for them to grow.
Venezuela has purchased arms worth more than $10 billion this year and is planning to purchase an equivalent amount in 2007, deeply upsetting the strategic balance in South America.
Chávez's narcissistic nature has been satisfied for a while with this electoral victory, but his appetite for power is insatiable. Chávez's opponents and his neighbors must brace for a time of ever- increasing outrage and danger.
Enrique ter Horst is a lawyer and political analyst in Caracas. He was head of the UN peace operations in El Salvador and Haiti.