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.