October 9, 2012 -
Venezuela’s strong-man Hugo Chavez won his fourth election as president over the weekend. It was a closer race than the 54% to 45% vote spread suggests.
Henrique Capriles, a popular governor, gave Chavez his stiffest competition in a dozen plus years. Some even thought he could win. Wishful thinking.
Capriles – a marathon runner known as "the skinny one" – waged an energetic campaign compared to the ailing Chavez (his health condition a state secret). The runner said he would normalize relations with the U.S. and foreign companies that have faced nationalization from Chavez. Capriles said he would end free oil shipments to Cuba, stop buying Russian weapons and reevaluate the country’s relationship with China. A Chavez defeat would have seriously dented the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders down south: Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Argentina. Closer U.S. relations would help with counternarcotics efforts and close the door to the Iranians who have tried to use Venezuela to skirt sanctions.
In the end, Chavez’s control of resources, media, and intimidation won the day. There were no international observers, only some domestic groups. This certainly inflated Chavez's total.
Even defeated, the young Capriles may soon get another shot. If Chavez, who has been battling cancer, succumbs, the constitution calls for fresh elections. Watch for the energized opposition to press in state elections scheduled for December.
Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States. That goal is still a marathon or two away. When Capriles conceded defeat, he tweeted his followers, "Calm, prudence, patience." Spoken like a true distance runner. The starting gun has sounded.