Occasional contributor Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at AEI. He is the the author, among other books, of Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History and Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy. Mr. Falcoff comments on yesterday’s elections in Venezuela:
The results are in. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president-dictator (and would be president-for-life) has scored another knockout victory at the ballot box. While there may have been a slight fudging with the numbers, and the government was able to monopolize media time and draw on huge resources to get supporters to the ballot box, the outcome cannot be much of a surprise. Any government that spends over a decade doling out goodies to the needy, in a country where most people are poor or near-poor, cannot lose an election.
The big surprise is not that Chavez won, but how well the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles did (46 percent), taking into account the non-level playing field not to mention nasty references to his Jewish ancestry (he is actually a practicing Catholic). As he reminded Chavez last night in his message of concession, almost half the country opposes continuation of the so-called Bolivarian project. Venezuela remains more deeply polarized than ever, its politics a zero-sum game which can be sustained only by continuously high oil prices and the cavalier use of the exchequer to buy votes and love.
This is so in spite of a grotesque neglect of the country’s basic infrastructure while vast sums have been siphoned off by friends and associates, not to mention sweetheart deals with foreign (non-US and largely non-Western) companies, voluminous arms purchases from Russia, gifts of oil (to the tune of 100,000 barrels a day) to prop up the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, and transfers of resources to friendly or subservient governments in the Caribbean and Central America, not to mention a plague of street violence and crime which makes Caracas the most violent city in the Western hemisphere.
Quite apart from the troubled course of the world economy (which could end the current spike in energy prices at almost any time), there is another imponderable Chavez is facing down the road–the unspoken issue of his health. The Venezuelan strongman, who has been operated on for cancer three times in Cuba in the past year and a half, claims that he is “cured.” Perhaps indeed he is, but photographs and videos reveal a face bloated with medications, presumably steroids. If he is deceiving the Venezuelan public (and perhaps even himself) there is no conceivable successor. He will have frittered away roughly a trillion dollars (no misprint) with no lasting impact on the welfare or the development of his people. Instead, he will have bequeathed them a deep social antagonism which under the right (that is, the wrong) circumstances, lead to a civil war.
Given the margin of this victory, it is not likely that Chavez will moderate his rhetoric or his actions. Quite the contrary. He is bound to press his momentary advantage. One can only hold one’s breath while watching for the next act to unfold.