Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Venezuela's visionary genius

Venezuelan elections pave the way for buttressing socialism in South America, applauds Gamal Nkrumah

Hugo Chavez's life reads like a clich├ęd Hollywood film script. He drew some blood on Sunday when he mocked his rightist rivals' rhetoric. Chavez institutionalised a democratic system that stands in marked contrast to most other democracies in South and Central America. But, make no mistake, Venezuela will now enter a most contentious phase in its political development.

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Hugo Chavez

It is not hard for outsiders to work out how Chavez has hung on to power for so long. Chavez added six more years to his current 14-year rule. His adroit diplomacy abroad stresses that he must wear his leftist political orientation on his sleeve. His health was not a subject that cropped often during the election campaign. On the one hand, his detractors presume that he relishes the narrative drama of his struggle against cancer.

There is gossip and there is banter in the Venezuelan capital Caracas and in the country at large. The resounding victory of Chavez will not drastically change perceptions of the path hewn by Venezuela's president. There are warm handshakes with the people of the shantytowns and with fellow leftist foreign dignitaries. And, there are updates on business. The president's knowledge of Venezuela's enviable social benefits system and of local housing is impressive and endears him to the masses.

"I'm going to work with the other branches of government, governors and private business and solve this problem of housing," extrapolated Chavez. And, he immediately pledged the provision of 25,000 homes for low-income groups. He also vowed to turn the golf courses of the rich into housing estates and for the creation of neighbourhoods of affordable housing, much to the chagrin of Venezuela's business tycoons.

Wealth redistribution is a predilection of the Venezuelan president. Chavez is committed to poverty reduction programmes, and social spending has soared funded by Venezuela's considerable oil revenues. Topping his list of priorities is solving the housing crisis in the country. He has earmarked $1 billion for housing projects for the poor across the country.

The micro-credit programmes of Chavez have become a trademark of the newly-elected Venezuelan leader. His government has set price controls much to the jubilation of the poor. He has also indicated that he intends to reduce the influence of multi-national corporations and has indeed nationalised key industries such as telecommunication companies and electrical utilities. Small wonder Venezuelans voted for Chavez in droves.

Yet Henrique Capriles's defeat cannot wilt the determination of Venezuela's rightist forces to fight back. Yes, the country's corporate world is furious, and there will be plenty of time for cynicism later. However, the country's right continues to take the longer view.

Long before the ritual spinning both sides deployed before Sunday's Venezuelan elections, it was all too apparent that Capriles was bound to fail in his bid for the presidency. Unlike Chavez, Capriles does not have a clear political agenda. He cannot openly espouse the cause of the rich. He tried half-heartedly to court the poor. The political future of Capriles is unknowable. However, the past two decades are revealing. The moral of the story is: get used to Chavez and his political philosophy. It will not change.

That is true enough as far as President Chavez's ingeniously effective campaign machine goes. Venezuela's economic elite like it vastly less. It is no surprise then that Venezuelans discovered home truths in Sunday's presidential poll.

Traffic of Venezuela's social networks, and particularly twitter, was especially intense in the weeks leading up to the 7 October and there were lively debates since the Venezuelan television is state controlled. Chavez will never ditch his populist agenda and deliver the competitive shock that his rival insists that the country needs.

Still, the story of plenty is yet to be fulfilled in Venezuela. And, Chavez knows it. Venezuela has passed an important milestone in its journey towards a fully-fledged democracy.

Capriles should be congratulated for moving quickly to concede defeat in Sunday's bitterly contested presidential poll. Chavez is unstoppable. Certainly, his term has not been without blemishes.

Western-based watchdogs such as Transparency International have raised concerns over continued cronyism in Venezuela's corporate world as well as in governmental institutions.

Venezuela appears to have passed with flying colours yet another serious democratic test and will be designated as a vigorous member of the Venezuelan opposition. His vision for the future is unclear to many Venezuelans except that he wants to tackle the overwhelming influence of the state in economic and social affairs and improve the tense relationship with the United States.

Still, Capriles has started well with his quick concession. He is more than a callow Western-educated Latin American political leader with a too-high opinion of his own self. He is a democrat.

The immediate conundrum is not an easy one. Chavez is no dictator, he is popularly elected in free and fair elections. He has been accused of increasing authoritarianism.

Chavez, according to Daniel Duquenal's blog "Venezuelan News and Views" has had to put up with stiff opposition from Capriles supporters. "The Libertador, the Solano, the Miranda, the San Martin avenues were full in Venezuela, today Capriles has put at least a million and a half Venezuelans in the streets of Caracas," Duquenal pointed out.

While much of the rhetoric against Chavez's socialism had the flavour of electoral pantomime, he is on the warpath against the capitalists -- local comprador and foreign imperialists. Capriles, on the other hand is licking his wounds. As the underdog, most of the onus was on his lack of sympathy for the disadvantaged.

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