The "Bolivarian Revolution" marches onward in Venezuela. Socialist paramount Hugo Chavez, after winning a decisive victory in the presidential election Sunday, has vowed to continue his policies of expanding social welfare programs, nationalizing major industries and building ties with other leftist governments in Latin America.
“The revolution has triumphed!” Chavez bellowed before a massive crowd at the Presidential Palace in Caracas, lifting up a replica of the saber wielded by 19th-century South American freedom fighter Simon Bolivar.
“This has been the perfect battle, a democratic battle,” he added, Reuters reported. “Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century.”
The opposition disagrees, complaining that Chavez had an unfair advantage due to nonstop positive coverage from state media and having the county’s vast oil wealth at his disposal, but it has accepted the defeat nonetheless.
“I gave it my all and I’m proud of what we built,” opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski said in his concession speech, NBC reported. “I will continue to work for Venezuela.”
“I’m convinced that this country can be better,” he added, the Washington Post reported. “Being a good president means working for all Venezuelans.”
Chavez defeated Capriles by more than a 10-point margin, 55 percent to 44.4 percent, based on the latest figures, but it was the strongest showing yet for an opposition candidate, indicating widening discontent with Chavez’s policies.
Nevertheless, Chavez will have the next six years -- health permitting, as he has been undergoing treatment for an unspecified form of cancer for over a year -- to execute his vision for Venezuela.
The Chavez government has invested much of its oil wealth, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of government revenues, into social welfare programs that provide housing, health care and education for poor and working class Venezuelans, a policy that has made it widely popular among a large swath of the population.
When Chavez took in office in 1999, about half the population was living in poverty. Today, that number stands at a little over a quarter of the population.
Critics argue that the government should invest oil revenues back into the oil industry in order to increase production and keep up maintenance and safety measures.
A massive fire at the country’s main oil refinery that killed 48 people in August has been attributed to lax safety standards and poor maintenance, though the government has denied such claims and suggested that it was an act of political sabotage in the run-up to the elections, though a government investigation has yet to produce any evidence.
When In Doubt, Nationalize
The Chavez government has been able to dictate the application of its oil revenues by further nationalizing its oil industry.
In 2007, Venezuela expropriated majority stakes in joint ventures between state-owned oil company PDVSA and ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and ChevronTexaco in the Orinoco Oil Belt.
The move was excoriated by the private oil companies, but it ties in with Chavez’s professed philosophy of controlling national resources and industries for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.
The Chavez government has also nationalized much of its power and telecommunications sectors, and it is expected to expand state influence into the banking, health and food sectors.
Bolivar’s Grand Vision: A Unified Latin America
Chavez’s revolutionary idol, Simon Bolivar, is hailed as the liberator of what would eventually become the Latin American nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama, from the yoke of Spanish colonialism, though it was Bolivar's dream to establish a unified Latin America from Mexico to the southern tip of Patagonia.
Bolivar’s dream was not realized, however, because it was undercut by what he considered petty nationalism and the competition for power among self-interested warlords who kept the region divided despite having previously united to defeat Spanish rule.
Chavez has expressed a similar vision for Latin America, forming close ties with other leftist governments in the region, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia.
In 2004, Venezuela established the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas, or Alba, which was presented as an alternative to a proposed free trade zone between North and South America known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which Chavez had previously denounced as a “path leading to hell,” according to Uruguayan news agency MercoPress.
Alba calls for greater integration between Latin American governments to support regional economic development and eliminate what leftist economists denounce as trade imbalances favoring developed nations like the U.S.
Chavez will continue to seek expansion of cooperation among Latin American governments, supporting leftist movements through economic enticements backed by Venezuela’s oil wealth, and isolating countries where such movements have been stopped through political coups, such as in Honduras and Paraguay.
Of course, there is also entrenched support in Latin America for free-market economics, and many countries are willing to choose isolation from their leftist neighbors over isolation from the U.S.
Crime, Oil And Other Harsh Realities
While Chavez has been granted another six years to execute his vision for the country and region as a whole, he will have to address major issues, such as rising crime, institutional corruption and an undiversified economy, that threaten to destabilize the power apparatus he has built.
Under Chavez’s administration, violent crime has exploded across the board to the point where the government no longer publishes statistics. Outsiders are left to rely on nongovernmental organizations based in the country, such as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, for the most accurate picture of the situation there.
The CICPC, Venezuela’s equivalent of the FBI, has remained tight-lipped about the actual crime figures, but according to the VVO, homicides have nearly quadrupled since Chavez first came to office, kidnappings have increased over tenfold and gang violence has overrun the capital Caracas, earning it the dubious title of “most violent city in the world” in various foreign media outlets.
The factors behind this growth in crime have often been attributed to dysfunction within Venezuela’s law enforcement and the criminal justice systems, but the expansion of the drug trade throughout much of Latin America is also a driving factor.
Local law enforcement has been debilitated by corruption and nepotism in an environment where Socialist party loyalty takes precedence over accountability and merit, allowing criminal activities to go unchecked.
The Chavez government established the Bolivarian National Police in 2009 to begin addressing these problems in local enforcement, but it will take time for it to build up a functional security apparatus.
Venezuela could face an even greater threat to domestic security should its oil export-dependent economy suffer a destabilizing shock in a market that is becoming increasingly volatile.
Already oil production is slowing down in Venezuela as a result of a lack of investment, which only puts the country in a more economically precarious situation.
Inflation is running at around 20 percent and unemployment at 8 percent, which the Chavez government is attempting to address through centralized economic policies that are backed by diminishing oil revenues.
Much to the chagrin of the U.S., Chavez has deepened ties with China and Russia, striking deals to explore options for increasing oil production, and Chavez has begun scaling back subsidized oil shipments to political allies.
Expanding other sectors of the economy might also provide a buffer against the decline in oil production, but such a scenario seems unlikely given Chavez’s economic strategy.
Chavez’s bid to further nationalize more industries has discouraged the foreign investment that typically spurs rapid economic expansion (though often, critics say, while exacerbating economic disparities).
Venezuela is also likely to maintain an antagonistic relationship with the U.S., despite the fact that roughly one-third of its oil exports goes to America.
Chavez’s goal is to secure Venezuela from an economic system in which he says rules dictated by the wealthiest nations provide little benefit to his own country, and so long as he has popular support, this path will continue. Whether that path will be sustainable is another story.