Chávez, President for the Life of the Oil Boom?

Hugo Chávez 

CARACAS, Venezuela—President Hugo Chávez elevated expectations for his re-election, swearing he would deliver a “hurricane” victory and “thrash” the opposition. He made good on the promise: Early returns showed him besting his opponent, Zulia Gov. Manuel Rosales, 61 percent to 38 percent. El comandante will now embark on another six-year term, although his actual tenure will probably be longer: The president has already announced he will propose a referendum that will allow him to remain in power indefinitely.

The landslide will give Chávez leverage to push Venezuela further leftward—and exert pressure on other Latin American nations to follow his lead. At home, he will expropriate more land and create additional state-owned enterprises. Abroad, he’ll use Venezuela’s oil wealth to counter U.S. influence in the region, pushing allies in countries like Nicaragua and Ecuador to ditch neoliberal economics. The Venezuelan president will also be one of the most important players in post-Fidel Cuba. The tens of thousands of barrels of oil he sends to Havana have allowed the country´s economy to continue functioning. Once Fidel passes from the scene, Chávez will argue in favor of retaining the current system—and given his Mac Daddy status, that opinion will carry weight.

Last night, a euphoric Chávez interpreted his victory as a mandate to remake Venezuelan society. “The reign of socialism is the future of Venezuela!” he declared. But the president may find that his constituents—who are known throughout Latin America for their consumerist predilections—aren’t so keen to follow him down that path. I met a lot of chavistas, but not one was amenable to the president’s most outré ideas, like eventually supplanting capitalism with a barter system. Erika Alvárez, a 40-year-old nurse who was waiting in line to cast a ballot in the impoverished 23 de Enero neighborhood, raved about Chávez—”He’s a man who understands us and speaks with emotion”—but she was adamantly opposed to major changes in Venezuela’s economic system. “I love my country just the way it is,” she declared. As far as she was concerned, Chávez could remain in power for decades to come, “as long as we support him,” she added, wagging her finger for emphasis.

As he works to maintain that support, Chávez will have to contend with savvier political opposition. Up until this year, few political figures had been as lucky in their enemies as the Venezuelan leader. He rode to power in 1998 attacking the country’s entrenched elites for 40 years of self-serving governance. If Venezuelans had any doubts about the accuracy of that characterization, they were put to rest when Chávez opponents staged a short-lived coup in 2002: One of interim President Pedro Carmona’s first moves was to shut down the General Assembly and the Supreme Court. Sensing a dictatorship in the making, Venezuelans staged pro-Chávez demonstrations, and el comandante was reinstalled in the presidential palace.

The coup wasn’t the only time opposition leaders miscalculated spectacularly. Last year, they delivered the 167-member General Assembly to Chávez when they boycotted the legislative elections. (They alleged the administration’s voting machines were untrustworthy.) Pro-Chávez legislators now hold every seat in the Congress, leaving the president in charge of the legislature, executive branch, armed forces, and judiciary.

There are signs, however, that the anti-government forces are improving on their Keystone Kops performance. This election, standard-bearer Rosales didn’t offer the traditional anti-Chávez rationale for his candidacy, which can be described as “this guy is a clown; throw him out.” He also proposed anti-poverty plans of his own. Rosales’ hallmark initiative, the Mi Negra debit card—which would have provided the poorest Venezuelans with several hundred dollars a month—wasn’t much of a vote-getter, but at least he was giving the destitute a reason to vote for his candidacy.

It’s not just in his domestic opposition that Chávez has been fortunate. Particularly after the Bush administration tacitly endorsed the 2002 coup, Chávez made the U.S. president his Public Enemy No. 1. Given how unpopular Bush is around the world, Chávez’s no-holds-barred attacks on the U.S. commander in chief earned him an international following. But Bush will become less visible in the next two years as the campaign to replace him begins to dominate the headlines, and he will be off the stage altogether in 2008. Chávez may well find that his own prominence and popularity dips when he can no longer assume the mantle of the Anti-Bush.

Even when he could use Bush as a foil, Chávez often didn’t charm voters outside Venezuela. Chávez has been active in presidential contests across Latin America over the last year. His intervention arguably cost his preferred candidates in Mexico and Peru their races. And while Chávez allies did win elections in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, his influence in those countries is limited. Those impoverished nations cannot tell off the United States the way Chávez can—their countries, after all, do not hold the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East. Ultimately, Chávez may have to content himself with helping Cuba maintain a communist economy, rather than successfully exporting his “Bolivarian Revolution” to other corners of the continent.

Chávez is indisputably a charismatic leader; impoverished Venezuelans in particular seem to have a strong emotional connection to their president. But the principle reason he’s been able to maintain his domestic support and raise his international profile is the high price of oil. The windfall has Venezuelans feeling flush: Expensive Italian restaurants are bursting with diners, aged whiskey is flying off the shelves, and the streets are clogged with Hummers. Chávez’s spending has ensured that the oil bonanza reaches the middle and lower classes, too. The country’s 2 million public-sector employees received their Christmas bonus in November. And the heavily funded misiones are providing education, medical treatment, and cut-rate groceries to thousands of poor Venezuelans. In other words, the majority of voters are better off today than they were when Chávez assumed office eight years ago. Passing that litmus test generally guarantees re-election.

But it’s far from clear whether the economic good times will persist, either for Chávez or Venezuela. The country’s economy is more dependent on oil than ever before. And in the past, when oil prices have dropped, Venezuelan presidents have seen their support bottom out. Take former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who first served during the 1970s oil boom and again in the early 1990s. During his first term, Pérez was lauded for nationalizing the state oil industry and spending lavishly on public works; his re-election in 1989 was due in large part to the public’s happy memories of the go-go years. During his second term, however, Pérez found himself persona non grata when low oil revenues forced him to impose economic austerity measures. Then-Lt. Col. Chávez sensed an opening and attempted a coup in 1992. The putsch was unsuccessful—Chávez subsequently served time in prison—but the military uprising exposed Pérez’s vulnerability, and he was impeached in 1993.

Chávez may want to take heed of the trajectory of the man he helped dislodge from power. A leader who can look invincible during boom years can fare much worse when oil revenue goes from a geyser to a trickle. It´s worth remembering that the coup against Chávez took place when oil prices were low. He did just win re-election by the biggest margin in Venezuelan history, but the price a notoriously fickle commodity fetches on the world market could determine when his “indefinite” term in office comes to an end.