Chavez's Cloak of Democracy

(International Relations and Security Network, 04/12/2006)


By late in the evening on 3 December, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council announced that with 73 percent of the votes counted, Hugo Chavez held some 61.35 percent, while opposition leader Manuel Rosales held some 38.39 percent.


As Chavez stood before a crowd of supporters from the “victory balcony” at the president’s Miraflores Palace, Rosales conceded defeat in an act of political prudence that showed integrity even as it stole momentum from the opposition’s plans to protest the election results.


On 4 December, Venezuela’s opposition seemed complacent, accepting the election results. Rosales has pledged to work through grassroots systems to build support for the opposition from the ground up. Many of his supporters are likely to work with Rosales to build a solid base over the next six years. Yet, other Venezuelans in the opposition feel an utter loss.


Long before Chavez won the elections, he said he would change Venezuela’s constitution to allow for unlimited presidential terms. As of 4 December, nothing short of a civil war or assassination can stop him from making that happen.


According to the US daily The Los Angeles Times, Carlos Escarra, a Chavez supporter and member of Venezuela’s national assembly, said that legislators would meet this week to discuss constitutional “architecture.” On the agenda, apart from unlimited presidential terms, is the transfer of ownership of businesses and factories to worker cooperatives, the legal strengthening of decrees made by the president, and the tightening of controls over broadcast media.


These changes are just the beginning. Chavez, on the wave of his new mandate, will work to deepen his “Bolivarian Revolution” inside Venezuela. In his victory speech, Chavez said “the new phase that begins today will have the deepening, amplification and expansion of the Bolivarian Revolution as a fundamental strategy.”


Chavez also claimed that his victory was a great loss to the “empire” and the “devil,” referring to the US and President George W Bush.


Chavez’s victory, while not surprising, is a cause for concern in Washington. Democrats and Republicans must recognize that Chavez will likely remain in power for many years to come, beyond the end of his new six-year term. His ties with Russia, China and Iran will only deepen over time.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini congratulated Chavez from Tehran on 4 December, saying: “The victory of freedom seekers and independent-minded figures in Venezuela and Latin America points to the love of the people of the region for real independence and their hatred for US officials' arrogant attitude.”


Referring to plans for a Kalashnikov assault rifle factory in Venezuela, Chavez stated that “soon we will be selling [the rifles] to countries in Latin America.”


With China, Chavez has signed development deals worth billions of dollars, and plans to work with China stretch well into the future. And if Chavez manages to complete his plans for a pipeline from Venezuela through Colombia to the Pacific coast, it will likely boost oil sales between China and Venezuela, already at 200,000 barrels per day (bpd). Venezuela hopes to expand these sales to 500,000 bpd by 2009-2010.


Ultimately, Washington must abandon the silent treatment. Chavez’s victory underlines a need for real dialogue between Washington and Caracas. Further distance between the two countries cannot be allowed. Yet given Chavez’s hardened stance and the Bush administration’s concern elsewhere, it appears a deeper geopolitical divide between the two countries lies in the future.


The 3 December victory for Chavez and his so-called revolution in Venezuela has also highlighted a fundamental weakness in US foreign policy, both in Latin America and around the world.


The Bush administration’s strong rhetoric about freedom, democratic values and “our” way of life is balanced on the relatively weak foundation of the world’s standard for free and fair elections. As long as leaders like Chavez can demonstrate they have been elected by voters allowed to express their volition at the ballot box, there is little Washington can do in terms of regime change.


Chavez is aware of the importance of maintaining a semblance of free and fair elections to fend off unilateral efforts to remove him from power. Even if he changes the constitution to allow himself to run for president until he is as old as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, there is nothing the US, or any other country, can do to sway world opinion against him as long as he is democratically elected.


This reality is perhaps more threatening than Chavez’s ties with Iran, or his intent to distribute Kalashnikov rifles throughout the Americas like candy. For now, we know Chavez will remain in power for another six years. It is likely he will remain Venezuela’s president until at least 2021. What he does between now and then is anyone’s guess. Chavez is in no hurry. He is in power now and there is little anyone can do to change that until 2012 and quite likely well beyond.