The results are in, and they are not pretty.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias, amigo and financier of Fidel Castro and of all radical, anti-American, anti-capitalist organizations in Latin America, won his country’s August 15 referendum to remove him by a hefty 1.5 million votes. After receiving 58 per cent of the popular vote, the Organization of American States and observer Jimmy Carter accepted Chavez’s victory claim.
But all did not come up roses in this seemingly sweet victory for the South American leftist, who calls himself the leader of the “Bolivarian Revolution.” A medley of incoherent and leaderless opposition groups is claiming fraud, putting forward some good (but not good enough) explanations for their defeat. Many of their recall petitions, for example, were rejected in May by a Chavez-appointed electoral commission and had to be re-signed in an atmosphere of intimidation; the Supreme Court had been “enlarged,” that is, stuffed with Chavez loyalists in a move that would have made FDR proud; and on election day voting hours were moved at the whim of the authorities, to list only a few.
But the size of Chavez’s victory cannot be explained entirely by fraud in a country of relatively well-educated people with access to information and to a mostly anti-Chavez media. The main explanations for the referendum’s failure to remove him lie elsewhere and are far more serious and extensive. Besides the incompetent opposition, the other major one responsible for Chavez’s survival is oil.
Venezuela is a major producer and exporter of this very valuable commodity, ranking fifth overall in the world in production, first in the Americas, and third as a source of US imports, a position it has occupied since the 1960s. Oil has done to Venezuela what it has done to every large, oil-exporting, third-world country where the consequences of total dependence on its export have become predictable and poisonous. Even developed Norway suffers some of the symptoms.
Like in these other countries, oil revenues in Venezuela have encouraged a widespread aversion to work, so most of it is now done by immigrants from the rest of Latin America. That, combined with the creation of high-paying, money-losing, state-owned “industries” has created an entire nation of rent-seekers, widespread corruption and an almost total dependence on government handouts.
When oil prices started to fall during the 1990s, all these pathologies came to the fore. Venezuela’s comfortable two-party system, established in 1958, whereby the social-democratic Democratic Action (AD) and the equally redistributionist Social-Christian Party controlled national politics, ended when high national debt and low oil prices forced AD President Carlos Andres Perez Rodriguez to impose belt-tightening measures. This, in turn, caused army officers, led by then Lt.-Col. Chavez, to try and overthrow Rodriguez twice in 1992, failing both times.
But Perez was subsequently found guilty of corruption in 1996, completely discrediting the two-party system. This, along with popular frustration and the widespread, popular belief that Venezuela was a “rich country” combined to produce the Chavez’s election in 1998 and his reelection in 2000.
The disarray and incompetence of the Venezuelan opposition played a contributing role in each of Chavez’s victories. In the August one, opposition leaders assumed that Venezuelans, anxious for democracy, would rise up and get rid of Chavez democratically. The Sumate (“Join In”) opposition umbrella included the Catholic Church, most trade unions, the middle class, those few remaining members of the upper class who have not yet relocated to Miami, and politicians from the far left to the center right. The problem is that many Venezuelans belong to none of those groups.
High oil prices also helped Chavez. Indeed, once he took over the state-owned oil company last year, he used the cash bonanza to basically buy a majority of the voters. The government’s recent campaigns to establish schools and clinics in remote areas and destitute neighborhoods in Caraca and to organize, arm, and control “Bolivarian” militias – i.e. organized and government-controlled thugs that intimidate, beat, and sometimes murder opponents - were similarly successful.
To be fair, credit for Chavez’s August 15 victory has to be shared with Fidel Castro. Not only did the Cuban leader add hundreds of security and secret police cadres to Chavez’s own, he also provided essential advice derived from his earlier, but less successful attempts to create mirror-image communist regimes in Salvador Allende’s Chile in 1973 and in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1979.
However, while both those ventures failed, Castro did learn some valuable lessons, unlike the anti-Chavez opposition. One of the first was the importance of controlling the military, something that Allende failed to do and paid for with his life. This lesson was applied after Venezuela’s 2003 pseudo-coup that removed Chavez for a few hours. His opponents made every possible error and then some, the outcome being the reinstatement of the Bolivarian hero. Helped by his regular meetings with Castro, Chavez then launched a purge of the Venezuelan military, which is now a reliable instrument in the president’s hands.
Another lesson was learned from the Nicaraguan experience of 1990, when the Sandinistas expected an electoral victory but were defeated. Castro expressed to his admirer from Caracas that he should be sure to actually buy, rather than just rent, the mobs, and to give them something more than rhetoric to ensure their support. Here circumstances came to Chavez’s aid in the form of oil prices. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, had no oil-based bonanza to offer their voters.
As a result of Chavez’s referendum victory, the United States and the Western Hemisphere are still faced with a “legitimate”, subversive regime in Caracas, propelled by oil and intent on promoting its (or Havana’s) policies. A Chavez-led Venezuela is also capable of acting as a potential, new life preserver for the otherwise sinking Cuban regime.
As a result, Washington should question its concern with the democratization process, at least in Venezuela’s case. America should not meekly accept either Chavez’s claims to democratic legitimacy or his subversive activities in this hemisphere. Venezuela needs the US market at least as much as the United States needs its oil, and Washington should make other Latin Americans leaders aware of the fact that playing Chavez’s game has costs, which could indeed be high.