While thousands of red-shirted “Chávistas” crowded in front of Venezuela’s presidential palace in Caracas to listen to President Hugo Chávez’s acceptance speech this week, their celebrations were muted by the close results. The socialist leader, 58, was re-elected with only 54 per cent of the vote—a far cry from 2006 when he steamrolled the opposition.
While the electorate didn’t send the populist leader packing, it clearly signalled its unhappiness with a decade of Chávez’s rule. While his Bolívarian Revolution saw the creation of massive social programs for the poor combined with equally mammoth loans and oil transfers to neighbouring socialist nations including Cuba, it did nothing to combat endemic violence—it has one of the highest murder rates in the world and kidnapping is a growth industry—power blackouts, high inflation and, in a country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, a faltering economy.
Though he reached out to those opposed to his increasingly dictatorial rule after the election—recognizing “all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight”—throughout the campaign he caricatured his opponent, Henrique Capriles, as a “pig” and a “right-wing oligarch” who would govern only for the rich. Indeed, he never publicly named Capriles.
Certainly Chávez knows he faces a formidable opposition leader. Capriles, 40, a charismatic former state governor, united the notoriously fractured anti-Chávez forces and ran a strong campaign. He promised to rein in the excesses of Chávez’s largesse, most notably by cutting off oil gifts, and to bring fiscal restraint to the government. In his concession speech, Capriles hinted that he was going to continue to be a thorn in the president’s side, telling Venezuela, “I am at your service.”