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On October 7th, Venezuelans voted to give Hugo Chavez a fourth term as president. With a historic turnout of over 80% of the electorate (a remarkable figure in a country where voting is not mandatory), Chavez handily defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski by an eleven-point margin: 55.14% to 44.24%.i In seeking to account for why this has occurred, mainstream media have studiously avoided the most straightforward explanation: a majority of Venezuelans support Chavez and the policies his administration has implemented over the last fourteen years.
Rather than countenance the heretical idea that Venezuelans may actually like the direction their country is headed in, journalists have proffered a variety of alternative explanations for Chavez’s proven staying power. Prior to the election, there was widespread media speculation that Chavez would refuse to accept the opposition victory mainstream commentators thought was likely (in spite of pre-election polls that consistently gave Chavez a 10-point lead). Despite the lack of any evidence (other than tweets from opposition activists claiming that exit polls showed Capriles had won), Fox News suggested Chavez’s victory was due to fraud, reporting, “There are now questions about the legitimacy of these results”.ii In a demonstration that the Right does not have a monopoly over the sport of “Chavez bashing” (or the art of making bold assertions with no basis in fact), the Huffington Post also accused Chavez of fraud, suggesting that his (margin of) victory was due to post-election “tinkering”.iii
This stands in contrast to the view of Jimmy Carter, who recently stated, “[O]f the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world”.iv It stands in contrast to Chavez’s pre-election vow to respect the election results regardless of the outcome. And it stands in contrast to the view of leading opposition officials within Venezuela, who have repeatedly stressed their faith in the transparency of Venezuela’s electoral process. In his concession speech Sunday night, Capriles congratulated Chavez on his victory and made no accusation of fraud.v
It is also common to claim – as Fox News, The Economist and other outlets have done – that Chavez’s victories are due to “buying votes”.vi The “proof” offered to support this charge? The fact that the Chavez administration has spent millions supporting increased access to health care, pensions, and education and has promised to provide housing for 350,000 families. When asked about this argument, Susan Spronk, a professor of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, replied, “As for vote buying, if Stephen Harper [Canada’s conservative prime minister] promised to build more than 400,000 units of affordable housing, I would vote for him, too.”
Chavez did, of course, enjoy the advantages of incumbency. According to David Smilde, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, “Chávez benefited not only from enormous and largely non-transparent state spending, but differential access to media through cadenas (when all broadcast stations are obliged to transmit official events and speeches) and 10 minutes of public service messages daily. Nevertheless,” says Smilde, “independent research showed that Capriles had gotten his message out and had received more media coverage than Chávez. Furthermore, all except some fringe opposition groups believe the electronic platform worked well and provided an accurate result. Once again the “fear factor” – the idea that people tell pollsters they are going to vote for Chavez but actually then vote for someone else – was discredited and an 81% turnout showed a population with democratic values that is not alienated from the system.”
“The reasons for Chavez’s victory are not mysterious”, says Jeffrey Webber, a professor of politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. “There have been important reductions in income poverty, and wide-scale improvements in access to health care, education, housing, and pensions through increases in social spending via the multiplicity of new social programs called missions.” Research shows that Venezuela cut poverty in half between 2003 and 2008, with extreme poverty falling by 72%.vii Inequality has also fallen dramatically. The BBC reports that Venezuela is now “the most equitable” country in the region.viii In addition to the material improvement felt by millions of Venezuelans, Chavez’s policies have produced a sense of dignity for the poor. According to Myriam Gimenez, the director of Mision Cultura in the Venezuelan state of Lara, “Life has changed substantially for our people because this process has given society a place to speak, to study, to work, to struggle. Now we know that we’re living, that we’re worth something, and that we can have hope of a dignified life and country”.
Venezuela’s impressive social programs were made possible by the country’s phenomenal economic growth between 2003 and 2008, when the economy grew at an annual rate of 13.5%, the highest in Latin America and one of the highest in the world.ix Critics are fond of pointing out that this growth spurt coincided with historically high oil prices, but ignore the key role that Chavez played in resurrecting OPEC in the late 1990s (which led to the rapid rise in the price of oil). Critics are also fond of pointing out that Venezuela’s economic performance plummeted in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis. But the country has recently bounced back. “While entering into recession in 2009 as a result of the global crisis, the Venezuelan economy resumed growth over the last two-and-a-half years, reaching 5.6 percent in the first trimester of 2012,” says Webber. This is due to the type of deficit spending that, despite being maligned by The Economist, Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman argue the US (and Europe) should have pursued more vigorously over the last several years.x
Webber argues that Venezuelans have not ignored the problems still facing their country. But in his view – and apparently in the eyes of the 8 million Venezuelans who voted for Chavez – the benefits brought by Chavez outweigh the risks of returning to the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. “This economic continuity, and these social improvements in the lives of the poor majority, outweighed discontent stemming from persistent problems of violent crime, corruption, and bureaucracy. The memory of the preceding era of neoliberalism (1989-1999), when people became poorer and more insecure, and lost access to basic services, continues to haunt significant layers of the population.”
Given Chavez’s popularity, it is worth asking what lies behind the scorn so regularly heaped on him in the mainstream western media? According to Spronk, “Liberals are so upset about Chávez because he beats them at their own game – pluralist, capitalist democracy.” Spronk suggests that, “Instead of vilifying Chavez, critics in North America should turn their attention to the shambles made of their own ‘democracies’ after decades of neoliberalism. Foreign observers who claim to be concerned about poverty reduction and social equality ought to celebrate this unique experiment in radical social democracy that has genuine ambitions to become socialism, which at its base is a political project that aims to create an economy based on love and solidarity, not fear and individualism”.
But while Chavez remains popular, it is clear that the opposition has gained ground in recent years. “There’s still a lot to reflect upon and to do to have the consciousness needed to move towards socialism”, says Gimenez. “If you view the results, you can see that the opposition also grew and seems to be nipping at our heels. It’s not easy.” As mainstream media are quite fond of pointing out, this was the closest election Chavez has faced since coming to power. Chavez did significantly better in the 2006 presidential election, which he won by a margin of 63-37%. Why did he not do better this year?
One factor is the undeniable fact that the Venezuelan state continues to be plagued by corruption and inefficiency. This problem did not originate with Chavez. But his government has fallen far short in tackling it. Venezuelans of all stripes regularly complain about the problem of excess bureaucracy. In November 2010 I participated in several Chavista marches against bureaucracy. Webber argues that the key task for “the radical left within the labor movement, peasant movement, and urban social movements” is “to amplify and intensify their levels of self-organization and politicization in order to counter the weight of a growing conservative bureaucracy within the ruling party.” In his victory speech Sunday, Chavez demonstrated his awareness that in order to progress his “revolution” needs to make some corrections, saying, “I will be a better president”.
In addition to the many mistakes made by Chavez and his party, it is important to highlight the transformation of the Venezuelan opposition. In his campaign, Capriles sought to model himself after Lula and the Workers’ Party in Brazil. Chavistas argue that Capriles was a neoliberal “wolf” in sheep’s clothing. But the degree to which the opposition now accepts the basic tenets of Chavismo, at least rhetorically, is impressive. During his campaign, Capriles promised to maintain the missions if elected. In Sucre, a municipality in Caracas, Capriles’ party, Primero Justicia (First Justice), has ruled since 2008. As I observed during several months spent researching there in 2010, the party has implemented an impressive participatory budget that gives local citizens greater control of nearly half of the municipality’s investment budget. This is a far cry from the 2001-2004 period, when the opposition was implacably hostile to Chavez, seeking to overthrow him on numerous occasions, including through a coup d’etat in April 2002.
What does Chavez’s latest victory mean for Venezuela’s future? The fact that Capriles immediately accepted his loss (in contrast to the opposition’s refusal to accept defeat in previous elections) is an encouraging sign that Venezuela’s opposition may finally be ready to accept the democratic rules of the game. Chavez has also shown the opposition a greater level of respect following the election, reportedly holding a cordial post-election phone call with Capriles. Given the high levels of polarization Venezuela has faced, this is also an encouraging sign.
The future remains uncertain, especially given Chavez’s recent struggle with cancer. In August, Roland Denis, a noted leftist activist in Venezuela spoke to Spronk and Webber about the election. Denis commented, “If [Chavez] loses, it would be a terrible set back. But if he wins, we have not really ‘won’ anything, but the horizons would remain open. What I do sincerely hope happens, is that after the election all of this discontent, this tension that is mounting between the popular forces and the bureaucracy will come to a head. I hope that people will begin to speak and name the problem for what it is. Right now everyone is silent because they are waging an electoral campaign.”xi
The campaign is now over. Chavez has won. Many significant challenges remain for Venezuela. For Denis and the millions who voted for Chavez, the horizons remain open.
Gabriel Hetland is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on participatory budgeting in Venezuela and Bolivia.