Hugo Chávez’s Final Act

Why his victory means Venezuela will get much worse before it gets better.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves a Venezuelan flag after his re-election in Caracas on Sunday

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/GettyImages.

When I met Henrique Capriles in 2009, he was already being touted as the man most likely to challenge Hugo Chávez in the 2012 presidential elections. You could quickly understand why. Even though the refurbished elementary school holding the rally on that Sunday afternoon was in Chávez territory, Capriles’ arrival was met with the cheers, screams, and dancing that you’d expect for a rock star, not a governor. The charismatic young opposition leader felt comfortable in his skin and his informal style exuded confidence. Though he was three years from that presidential race, he already knew how to deliver the lines that made Venezuelans from this hardscrabble corner of the countryside roar. Capriles opened by recounting a story of a worker who had recently told him that, “I love Chávez, but I love you, too.” Capriles explained that was OK. “Sometimes a man falls in love with two or three women or a woman falls in love with two or three men. It’s all right—it’s part of life.” It’s OK if you gave your heart to Chávez; my arms are wide open. The crowd swooned.

But on Sunday there still wasn’t enough love for the handsome 40-year-old governor. Hugo Chávez won his fourth bid for Miraflores, the presidential palace, with 54 percent of the vote to Capriles’s 45 percent. Capriles did make inroads. Chávez, for example, only added 135,000 votes from his 2006 election total, while the opposition won nearly 1.9 million more votes than last time.

The question now is this: How will Chávez interpret his victory? What will he seek to do with another six years in power—or however much time he has before his health fails him?

It would be nice to imagine that losing nearly half the country would moderate this modern-day caudillo. That in his weakened positioned—both physically and politically—Chávez would seek to reconcile with the more than 6 million Venezuelans who feel betrayed by the last 14 years.

That is not going to happen. Chávez doesn’t want to tamp down Venezuela’s polarized politics. He thrives in it. Although he comes to power through elections, he doesn’t rule through democratic means. He has never proposed to govern through accommodation and negotiation. Rather he starts with the answer—21st-century revolution—and batters anyone who stands in his way. The fact that Chávez now finds himself leading roughly half of Venezuela against the other half of Venezuela isn’t a problem for him—it’s more fuel for his fire. As Gen. Raul Baduel, Chávez’s former friend and defense minister told me from his jail cell in 2010, “His specialty is tanks and armored vehicles. That is the type of weaponry he knows. …The concept is to roll over your adversaries, to flatten them. That’s his approach, to flatten his enemies.”

It was in the wake of his last presidential election in 2006 that Chávez began to truly radicalize his agenda. Soon after that victory, he targeted Radio Caracas Television. It was the oldest television station in Venezuela, and home to some of the public’s favorite Latin soap operas. But it was also critical of the president. Chávez announced that he would force it off the airwaves. Polls indicated that 65 to 80 percent of the country was against the station’s closure. Chávez wasn’t bothered. He moved ahead. When his 2007 referendum to grant himself enormous powers was blocked by the opposition—his only real electoral loss—Chávez merely pivoted. In short order, he has seized all those powers through presidential edicts or legislation forced through a rubber-stamp National Assembly. Chávez isn’t interested in reconciliation.

And there is little reason to expect he won’t ratchet up the pressure again. Although he wants to be president for life, Chávez’s likely life expectancy is now a secret between him and his Cuban doctors. Many members of the opposition expect nothing short of a full-frontal assault after this newest election. Will Chávez resort to political bans, barring some from standing for office? Will selective corruption investigations be launched against people in the private sector who were too vocal in their support of the opposition? Will there be another wave of nationalizations, as the president’s administration looks for new resources to keep Chávez Inc. afloat? Will Globovision—the only station still sometimes critical of the president—be the next to draw his fire? In a regime that rules through so much uncertainty, no one can say if he will dust off his old playbook or resort to something new. What is certain is that Chávez will need these and other political controversies to distract the public and keep the country’s politics polarized.

Maybe as Chávez gets closer to meeting Marx he will mellow. It’s possible. The only trouble is that there is nothing in his history to suggest it. He is only becoming more dependent on these authoritarian tactics, not less so. The truth is Venezuela will probably have to get much worse before it can get better.