In My Opinion…Victory may not boost Chávez’s regional clout

The conventional wisdom is that President Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela’s elections will increase his influence in Latin America, and that it may encourage other presidents to seek indefinite reelections. But there are good reasons to think that Chávez’s political momentum will be short lived, and geographically limited.

After Chávez’s Sunday victory, which will allow him to rule until 2019, most of his supporters and critics seem to agree that his victory will re-energize his followers throughout Latin America.

In a telephone interview from Caracas, Venezuela’s vice minister of foreign relations Jorge Valero told me that Chávez’s victory will mark a turning point in Latin America’s current history.

“This election will have a much more profound impact on the continent than what the Bolivarian Revolution has already had,” Valero told me. “This is a revolution, and this is a victory that may even impact other continents, such as Europe.”

Chávez’s victory will “give a new impulse” to several Latin American diplomatic groups that were born since the Venezuelan president took office 14 years ago, such as the Venezuela-led ALBA group that is also made up of leftist countries, such as Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua; Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the recently created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Valero said.

The start of Chávez’s third term in 2013 will coincide with Cuba taking over the rotating presidency of UNASUR, which is now held by Chile. That will be only one of many factors that will help bolster Venezuela’s diplomatic influence, he said.
Will the fact that a significant 45 percent of Venezuelans voted for the opposition — despite an uneven race in which Chávez virtually controlled television time and used massive state resources to buy votes — lead the president to reach out to the opposition, or will he radicalize his revolution, I asked Valero.

“The message from the Venezuelan people is that we need to move forward in the construction of an egalitarian society,” Valero said.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the outcome of Venezuela’s elections is likely to embolden other presidents — such as Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — to change their constitutions and seek indefinite reelections, as well as to step up efforts to clamp down on critical media, the Spanish daily El Pais said Monday. Many leading Latin American analysts voiced similar views in recent days.

My opinion: Chávez will undoubtedly get a political boost from his election victory at home and abroad, but his momentum will not compare to the clout he had a few years ago.

First, one of the most remarkable things of Venezuela’s Sunday election is that opposition leader Henrique Capriles won about 45 percent of the vote — much more than any predecessor — although Chávez had a “captive vote” of millions of public employees and recipients of government subsidies, as well as a near total control of television time.

Despite 14 years of near absolute powers, Chávez is much weaker today than he was in the 2006 presidential elections, when the opposition got only 36 percent of the vote.

Second, all politics is local, and Chávez’s victory will not automatically translate into a growing club of presidents-for-life. In a few months, Chávez’s victory will be a distant memory in most countries.

Third, and most important, Chávez’s influence at home and abroad is directly proportional to world oil prices, and there are no signs that oil prices will soar anytime soon. When Chávez took office, oil was at $9 a barrel. When oil prices jumped to nearly $150 a barrel in 2008, Chávez reached his peak, traveling around the world giving away petro-dollars to boost his narcissist-Leninist model, and seeking a seat at the United Nations Security Council.

Now, with oil prices back to about $100 a barrel, Chávez will have to spend much of his time taking care of domestic problems, such as fighting pressures to carry out a massive devaluation of the currency after the Dec. 16 state elections, controlling runaway inflation, lowering record crime rates, and ending electricity shortages that are politically embarrassing in one of the world’s top oil exporters.

Venezuela’s difficult economic situation, alongside a gradually growing opposition, and Chávez’s own uncertain health will keep Chávez from significantly stepping up his international activism. Barring an unexpected rise of oil prices, he will be too busy trying to keep the lights on at home.

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