Depending on where you get your news, you might think that either Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has further consolidated his petrostate, or perhaps that the opposition succeeded in a breakthrough victory, by winning four of the most important regions in the latest election. I’ll take it from Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who has a very interesting piece on the election results in the New Republic today:
Nationwide, the opposition won 52 percent of the popular vote against the government’s 48 percent. This is of particular significance because Chavez, who lost a referendum last December that would have given him the ability to seek permanent re-election, intends to put his megalomaniacal designs to the vote once again. Given Sunday’s results, in all likelihood he would lose a new referendum.
None of this,of course, should make us lose sight of the fact that, 10 years aftercoming to power, the Venezuelan autocrat still enjoys strong popularsupport, in part because of the deeply ingrained culture of populismthe government has tapped with its Bolivarian rhetoric, its use of oilmoney, and the demonization and persecution of potential challengers. Arecent poll by Datanalisis gave Chavez a 58 percent approval rating–asubstantial recovery from 35 percent early this year, when scarcity,inflation and crime turned many government supporters in the barrios ofCaracas and other cities against the government.
But the cost ofChavez’s resurgence will be dear–economically as well as politically.His last budget was based on the presumption that the average price ofa barrel of oil would be $90. In reality, the drop in demand linked tothe global recession has brought Venezuelan crude down to $40. While itis true that the price of oil was $8 when Chavez came to power,suggesting that even a $30 to $40 barrel would guarantee him an amountof revenue he could not have even dreamed of when he was planning histakeover of the country’s institutions, there is no question that theinternational crisis will limit his ability to bribe a large part ofsociety through political patronage.
Which is why Chavez needed aresounding victory Sunday in order to ensure that he could call aconstitutional referendum before the consequences of the globalrecession corrode the populist system on which his power rests. We canstill assume that he will try again sooner rather than later becausethe longer international economic conditions prevail, the chances ofhim winning are very dim.
One election will not be enough to getrid of Chavez anytime soon. But it means the opposition will be able tocontinue its political war of attrition against the government’sjuggernaut with renewed confidence. It is tragic that an entiregeneration of Venezuelans has had to devote a good part of its bestyears to resisting domination by an autocrat. But that is nothingcompared to the frustration Chavez must feel after 10 years of notbeing able to establish a second Cuba in Latin America.