What does Hugo Chavez's election victory mean for Venezuela's place in the world?by Guy Taylor / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Hugo Chávez’s sweeping election win may be read as a simple mandate for the demagogic Venezuelan leader to push on with his plans to transform his country with what he calls “21st-century socialism,” designed to empower the impoverished masses with state-controlled oil profits, as described in my article last week. But for the region and the world, his victory could mean much more. With Fidel Castro nearing death, Chávez’s victory solidifies his position of leadership among a growing number of leftist Latin American leaders eager to buck—or at least talk about bucking—a neoliberal economic model thrust upon the region by the US after the cold war. Chávez has “reaffirmed his standing as the leading opponent of US hegemony in the hemisphere,” says Daniel Hellinger, a US-based Latin America expert. Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega have recently been elected presidents of Ecuador and Nicaragua respectively. Chávez can be expected to enjoy a similarly cosy ideological alliance with these two to that which he maintains with Evo Morales, elected president of Bolivia last year, who has called US capitalism “the worst enemy of humanity.” Chávez also enjoys friendly relations with Brazil’s recently re-elected liberal president Lula da Silva. But he has butted heads with centrists who have come to power in Peru and Chile over the past year, and the president of Venezuela’s neighbour Columbia, Álvaro Uribe, is a leading ally of the US. Nevertheless, Hellinger argues that, “Chávez has some prospects for advancing his own vision of hemispheric unity,” especially since the Bush administration finds itself “severely weakened” by developments elsewhere in the world. Such unity will be difficult, though, according to Hellinger, “without political change in Mexico,” where US-allied conservative Felipe Calderon was recently sworn in as president despite ongoing protests from leftist opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Beyond the Americas, Chávez is pushing a multiplicity of global alliances, making diplomatic targets out of such US adversaries as Iran, Syria, China, Russia and Belarus—the latter two reportedly motivated by his desire to purchase sophisticated military equipment, since the US state department has embargoed arms sales to Venezuela. Iranian tractors built in Venezuela through the joint “VenIran” economic venture now dot the landscape of subsidised co-operative farms created by Chávez. With tensions burning hot during the election, opposition figures were eager to characterise the foreign policy of Chávez’s first eight years as president as irresponsible and pointedly anti-US. “Venezuela is more and more isolated,” said Milos Alcalay, Chávez’s ambassador to the UN until 2004. Having resigned over differences with the Venezuelan president, Alcalay voted against Chávez in the election, saying that “Venezuela is losing ground. If you make confrontation with other countries, you become isolated from the civilised and democratic nations of the world.” But among the 61 per cent of voters who backed Chávez in the presidential election were some who said complaints about his foreign policy and his bombastic anti-imperialist rhetoric are often overblown. Alvaro Sanchez stood in line for three hours to vote for Chávez in downtown Caracas. “Some people may be upset because of his friendship with Castro, or his ties with Iran, but a lot of people like that,” said Sanchez, a Latin American history scholar at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. While Chávez may now have a fresh permission slip from the masses to forge ahead with such programmes, and to further strengthen relations with US adversaries, Sanchez argues there is no denying that his government continues, albeit quietly, to engage in a muscular economic partnership with the US. “Away from the political rhetoric, regardless of it, these ties between the US and Venezuela will remain,” he said. These remarks were corroborated by figures I was given recently by senior officials at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, who—somewhat surprisingly—bragged that in the years since Chávez came to power, Venezuela has ascended the ranks of US foreign trade partners from 21st to 13th. While Chávez has been denouncing US hegemony almost daily, the share of Venezuela’s foreign trade with the US has risen to almost half, with some 87 per cent accounted for by oil exports. The gap between Chávez’s words and his government’s actions might be explained simply by the fact that he’s a showman who turns every public appearance into a performance. He certainly had his showman’s hat on for the election. After voting before the television cameras in one of Caracas’s most famous slums, he squeezed through the crowd and climbed into a red Volkswagen Beetle to drive himself away. The car may be symbolic of the average folk Chávez appeals to most, but there’s also a personal story behind it. In recent years, the president has been fond of telling tales about how his first car was a Beetle, and how he used to drive around as a young buck playing Mexican music and picking up girls. At a recent news conference, he explained that for his 53rd birthday last July, his friends had given him a remake of that first car. While he may not have been driving it to pick up girls on election day, he surely had no trouble picking up the votes.