His opponent cast him as a Latin American strongman, a Fidelista intent on stifling freedom, instigating violence and decimating the Venezuelan economy. But once again, Hugo Chávez has won the presidency of Venezuela by a landslide, confirming not only his local popularity but the decisive shift to the left in the region–and decidedly away from US influence.
This time Chávez faced down Manuel Rosales, a cattle rancher and state governor who repeatedly claimed the popular president would lead Venezuela toward Cuban-style autocratic rule. His pleas were unconvincing: With 78 percent of the polls reporting, Chávez won on Sunday with 61 percent of the vote, in contrast to Rosales's 38 percent.
Of course, Chávez is famous for his own overstatements. He's deemed George W. Bush "the devil" and Cuba's single-party system a "revolutionary democracy," adding that his latest victory will be dedicated to its ailing leader, Fidel Castro.
But Chávez won not for his admiration of Castro nor for his hostility toward the Bush Administration. He won because for the past eight years he's presided over a robust economy that's invested a large chunk of its revenues in raising the living conditions of the poor. Since taking office, Chávez has spent billions on his "Bolivarian Revolution," improving healthcare and education, offering subsidized food and fuel, raising cash benefits for single mothers, offering low-interest loans for small businesses and on occasion even transforming massive ranches and sugar plantations into worker-owned cooperatives. Those policies have insured his successive re-elections despite an attempted coup, a recall referendum and a massive oil strike designed to oust him from office. As was obvious from the boisterous support for Chávez at demonstrations in Caracas before Sunday's election, Venezuela's poor revere him. "Chávez was sent here by God," 41-year-old Rosa Gonzalez told the Associated Press.
Chávez's success has reverberated beyond Venezuela. In recent years he's helped sweep other left-leaning leaders in the region to power: Lula in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia and, most recently, Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Like Chávez, Correa has been harshly critical of Bush–he's publicly called Bush a "dimwit"–and he promised to renegotiate Ecuador's contracts with foreign oil companies to give the state a larger share of the profits. Correa has also pledged to restructure the country's debt to leave more money to invest in the poor, oppose a free-trade deal with the United States and close the last US military base in South America. Correa's victory in a runoff election confirmed popular support for those policies and dealt a major blow to Bush Administration hopes of bolstering its waning influence in the region. It also represents a sharp rebuke to the multinational oil companies that operate in Ecuador, which are widely reviled for reaping huge profits while contaminating the country's once-pristine rainforest and devastating its indigenous culture.
But most broadly, the elections of Chávez and Correa, and even the recent election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to lead Nicaragua, signal a growing disillusionment in Latin America with neoliberal economic policies championed by the United States, the World Bank and the IMF since the mid-1980s. That "Washington Consensus" favored wide-open markets, drastically reduced spending and privatized industry, and it coincided with the lowest economic growth in more than a century. Today, one in four Latin Americans still lives on less than $2 a day.
So, does the leftward turn in Latin America presage the revival of autocratic rule and the end of capitalism there, as many of its critics suggest? Hardly. To be sure, Chávez has enacted some troubling restrictions on free expression, such as a little-enforced law that criminalizes insults to the president or other government officials. But neighboring countries have recently repealed such laws, suggesting Chávez isn't starting any broad repressive trends. And despite the alarm bells, Venezuela still has a vigorous press–much of it owned by Chávez's vocal opposition.
Meanwhile, capitalism remains alive and well in Venezuela. Indeed, despite what Chávez has branded "21st Century Socialism," Venezuela's elite are only getting richer. Banks and credit card companies report huge increases in deposits and loans. The stock exchange has risen almost 130 percent this year and overall economic growth is expected to exceed 10 percent, giving Venezuela the highest growth rate in the Americas. And, although financial analysts complained when Chávez forced foreign oil companies to pay back taxes and higher royalties, he has retained an open-market system that allows them to continue to earn huge profits. Not exactly signs of Cuban-style socialism.
Chávez's actions have encouraged neighboring leaders to take similar measures. In Bolivia Evo Morales, elected president last year by a historic margin after pledging to "reclaim" the country's natural gas, has forced companies to renegotiate contracts so that Bolivia will keep between 50 and 80 percent of the profits rather than the measly 18 percent it was getting. Ecuador's new president has promised to do the same with his country's oil industry.
Despite Chávez's fiery talk of socialism, his policies so far have been more reformist than revolutionary. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has noted, "The private sector is actually a larger share of the Venezuelan economy today than it was before Chávez took office."
Critics warn that Chávez and his disciples are merely riding the wave of high oil prices. That's a danger for any economy that depends on selling natural resources. But the government's investments in education, healthcare, small businesses and cooperatives are the sort of spending that has long-term payoffs. If oil prices were to decline suddenly–unlikely, but always possible–Venezuelans would still be better off than they were before.
In the United States, left-leaning leaders like Chávez are easily dismissed as "populists," as if representing the interests of the majority were inherently deserving of scorn. That may say more about how little we've come to expect from our own elected representatives than about the legitimacy of the new wave of democratic leaders in Latin America.