Although socialist President Hugo Chávez routed his centrist challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, 55% to 45% in Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela, the opposition can take some consolation in the fact that Capriles did a lot of things right. That includes reaching out in a more credible way to poorer Venezuelans, who make up Chávez’s base. The problem is that it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for all the things the opposition has done wrong during the almost 14 years that Chávez and his populist, anti-U.S. revolution have ruled Venezuela and the world’s largest oil reserves. Chávez’s foes, whose unified front should have made Capriles a contender, now have another six years to ponder why the Miraflores presidential palace is still so far out of their reach when so many factors indicate it should be well within their grasp.
They will point to an uneven playing field: Chávez, 58, though his battle with cancer made him a less dynamic campaigner this time around, had access to an enormous trough of oil-fueled resources and, perhaps more important, to a ubiquitous state-run media machine. They’ll claim that Chávez’s socialist crusade has made so many jobs dependent on el comandante that most Venezuelans were fearful of employer retribution if they didn’t vote for him. But Venezuelans had more reasons than ever to vote against Chávez in this election — rampant violent crime has saddled the country with South America’s highest murder rate, economic mismanagement has produced one of the world’s highest inflation rates, and official corruption has begun to remind Venezuelans of the sleaze that Chávez once condemned as he rode to power — and the fact that a majority didn’t reject him says less about Chávez’s heavy-handed advantages than about his opposition’s nagging failure to offer a convincing alternative.
Capriles, 40, did trim almost 10 points off Chávez’s 2006 victory percentage. Perhaps recognizing that fact, Chávez hinted Sunday night at a more conciliatory, less polarizing government style for his next six-year term. That would be a welcome change — but this is still a guy who called Capriles a “low-life pig” during the campaign, so don’t hold your breath, especially since Chávez has also pledged to double down on his socialist crusade. What Chávez’s rivals really need to think about is this: they have yet to climb out of the political hole they so stupidly started digging for themselves early in their battle against Chávez a decade ago, and which they only stopped shoveling a few years ago. Sunday was a reminder of just how deep a pit they may have dug.
The Venezuelan opposition has long suffered from lame political skills. That’s largely because, during the ultracorrupt decades before Chávez, Venezuelan politicians were far more focused on honing their embezzlement skills — a big reason more than half the population lived in poverty despite the nation’s prodigious oil wealth. When Chávez pulled the rug out from under their venal feet in 1998 with his first presidential victory (he won a special 2000 election under a new Constitution), they possessed few if any of the engage-the-electorate tools they needed to challenge him. Even worse was their blithering denial: fuming over their imported Scotch on Caracas’ affluent east side, they were utterly incapable of acknowledging that their profligate, elitist abuses had been more responsible for Chávez’s stunning rise to power — and the broad popularity of his poverty-reduction project — than his red-beret demagoguery had been.
So they started digging their hole. One of their chief criticisms of Chávez was that in 1992, while an army officer, he’d led a failed but bloody coup. And yet, rather than try to counter him at the ballot box, as he’d done to them in ’98 and has done ever since, they tried to take him down with … a coup. But that 2002 putsch not only failed — after his brief ouster, Chávez’s legions of loyalists came down from the slums and put him back in Miraflores — it made him stronger, especially since his archenemy, the George W. Bush Administration, gave the impression of backing the coup.
Learning nothing from that debacle, the opposition then led a strike at Venezuela’s state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela. That reckless 2002–03 shutdown cost the Venezuelan economy some $7 billion. But the opposition leadership wasn’t nearly finished alienating Venezuelan voters. In 2004, instead of conceding they’d have to create and market their own government project, they opted for a presidential-recall referendum, which Chávez handily won. Then, as if to gift-wrap even more power for Chávez than he and his authoritarian governance were already amassing, his rivals made their most boneheaded move of all: they boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections and made the National Assembly a Chávez rubber stamp.
It took university students to snap the opposition parties out of their feckless fog: in 2007, spontaneous Chávez-style youth marches helped defeat his attempt to broaden his socialist powers in a national plebiscite. Finally Chávez’s opponents got the message, and in the 2010 parliamentary elections their parties actually denied his United Socialist Party a majority of the popular vote (though arcane apportionment rules allowed it to retain a majority of seats). That raised hopes that they might unseat Chávez this year, especially as they coalesced around Capriles, the governor of the state of Miranda, who represents a new generation of opposition leaders who for a change do understand why Chávez remains Venezuela’s most popular politician. “Chávez did well to identify poverty as the priority in Venezuela,” Capriles told me this year, “and if we as the opposition don’t engage that social reality, then it’s game over for us.”
Capriles at least made 2012 a much closer game than 2006 — his strong campaign also helped galvanize an 80% voter turnout — and if Chávez’s “21st-century socialism” keeps undermining Venezuela’s economy and security, 2018 may well prove even tighter if not a defeat for Chávez (who got presidential term limits eliminated in 2009). Chávez’s health will of course be a factor, but even that is an example of how much smarter a politician he is than his rivals are, both at home and abroad.
After Chávez announced his cancer last year (he has yet to disclose what kind), conservatives in Venezuela and the U.S., especially former U.S. diplomat Roger Noriega, loudly quoted anonymous medical sources who said Chávez was too ill to make it to the election let alone serve another term. They weren’t just wrong; they may have helped widen the margin of victory for Chávez, who danced at his closing campaign rally last week, by lending him a more messianic, death-defying aura. Chávez’s foes in Venezuela and Washington, where his alliances with the likes of Iran are a headache, are now looking at six more years of him. And six more years to finally climb out of the hole.