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Human Rights

Chávez Victory Brings Challenges for “21st Century Socialism”

Hugo Chávez greeting a little girl during a campaign rally. Credit: Comando Carabobo

CARACAS, Oct 8 2012 (IPS) - The landslide victory of Hugo Chávez, who was re-elected as president of Venezuela on Sunday, could translate into an acceleration of his socialist project or a toning down of his programme, which could help open up channels of understanding with the part of the country that has opposed him since he first came to power in 1999.

Chávez took 55 percent of the vote, compared to nearly 45 percent for Henrique Capriles, in an election that had the highest turnout in the country in three decades – around 81 percent according to the National Electoral Council.

Celebrating his triumph, Chávez said “Venezuela will never again return to neoliberalism, and will continue moving towards democratic, Bolivarian, 21st century socialism.”

The 58-year-old president, who is recovering from cancer, congratulated the opposition for its “democratic stance” after it recognised his victory, and said “I stretch out my two hands for us to work together for the good of the fatherland.”

Capriles, the president’s 40-year-old rival, acknowledged his defeat, saying “the people have expressed themselves, and for us that is the sacred word.” He also called on the winner of the elections to show “respect and consideration for the nearly half of the country that does not agree with him.”

“Opening the doors to dialogue and understanding is normal in any democracy after an election, but in Venezuela it is an extraordinary event,” Carlos Raúl Hernández, a professor of political science at the Central University, told IPS.

“A large part of Venezuela’s productive structure is broken, and the country has not diversified its economy,” he said. “This is the only country in Latin America that in the last 15 years has not increased its exports and which, even with the price of oil at 100 dollars a barrel, must go into debt without being able to meet social demands.”

Since Chávez first took office in 1999, poverty has been reduced to 28.5 percent, according to the World Bank, from at least double that. And the government introduced a broad range of social programmes, known as “missions”, bringing healthcare, dental care, education, subsidised food and literacy programmes to the poor, along with employment and housing plans. In addition, per capita GDP increased from 4,105 dollars to 10,810 dollars in 2011, according to World Bank figures.

In his campaign, Capriles pledged to maintain the missions.

“Now that he has won another term, Chávez has an opportunity to start rectifying, and to call on all sectors to face up to these difficulties. But if he opts for deepening his social policies as he has up to now, we will head to a major disaster in a very short time,” Hernández said.

In the past few years, the president has imposed tight controls on the economy, and nationalised more than 1,000 companies of all sizes. And for his 2013-2019 term he plans expand social ownership of the means of production, putting companies in the hands of communities joined together in what he calls a “socialist fabric.”

“Chávez’s challenge is to achieve an opening that implies overcoming the rentier economy of Venezuela, whose society and political class feed on oil revenue, and he can do that under the constitution of 1999, which is even more advanced than his discourse,” Alexander Luzardo, a professor of sociology, told IPS.

The president “has based his administration on the distribution of revenue to the popular sectors, but without guaranteeing the sustainability of that income by developing a diversified, environmentally sustainable economy,” Luzardo said.

In his view, “Venezuela should put in place a good social security system, and education, which with this government has expanded in terms of inclusion, should now focus on achieving quality and scientific and technological value.”

In 2005, Venezuela was declared free of illiteracy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“A harsh fact of reality is that this government has six and a half million opponents, not just a little group that can be ignored but nearly half of the country, towards whom he should focus his inclusive policy,” the analyst added.

“Chávez should learn from Nelson Mandela,” he said, referring to the former South African president, who dismantled apartheid.

The president “should govern not only for the eight million people who voted for him, but also for the other 6.5 million,” political scientist Gabriel Reyes told IPS.

The poor are Chávez’s main support base.

“Venezuela is unfortunately split in two halves,” former leader Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual, said in an editorial. “A country divided like this cannot prosper. If Chávez could understand this simple truth, he would comprehend that he has to make a shift in his way of dealing with his adversaries.”

But his old rival within the left, José Vicente Rangel, a Chávez supporter, wrote that “the minority who are in the opposition have an obligation to behave democratically.”

In the view of Rangel, and of much of the governing party’s leadership, “the problems that Venezuela has had during the stage of the Bolivarian process come from the anti-democratic attitude of an opposition that opted for attacking the constitutional order” – an allusion to the short-lived coup d’etat staged in April 2002.

Both sides are now preparing for the next electoral battle, on Dec. 16, when they will elect governors of the country’s 23 states, and the mayor of Caracas.

Although Chávez won in 22 of the country’s 24 electoral districts, “the cultural and social realities of the regions, with a view to the election for governors, are different, and the national result won’t necessary be repeated,” Luzardo said.

Hernández, for his part, said the heterogeneous opposition alliance, the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, would hold together for the December elections. The alliance, which backed Capriles in Sunday’s elections, is made up of more than 20 new and traditional parties ranging from right to left.

“There is nothing that unites and teaches more than necessity,” said Hernández. The
Mesa Democrática has already selected its 24 candidates for governors, in primary elections.

A question that will only be answered over time is whether Carriles will manage to remain the leader of the opposition.

Presidents aligned with Chávez, like the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador, congratulated him on his win Monday.

U.S. State Department spokesman William Ostick said “We believe that the views of the more than six million people who voted for the opposition should be taken into account going forward.”

And EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said in a statement Monday that “With victory comes responsibility. In his new mandate, President Chávez must reach out to all segments of Venezuelan society to strengthen the country’s institutions, and promote fundamental freedoms, and sustainable economic development.”

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