- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Hugo Chávez won another six-year term as Venezuela’s president in Sunday’s election, defeating opponent Henrique Capriles and vowing to advance his vision for bringing about "twenty-first-century socialism." Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, credits the promise of government benefits as well as "emotional and political ties" Chavez has with voters as crucial to his win. But she adds that the opposition "is recognizing that they are growing" and can potentially command a strong showing in the upcoming governors’ election in December. Chávez, meanwhile, sees his win as a "strong mandate" to continue his policies, although he has publicly acknowledged some mistakes and has promised to work toward more government efficiency. On the possibility for political unity, McCoy adds that with an expected currency devaluation ahead for Venezuela, "the government may have to make some difficult decisions, and in doing that, will not want to have a lot of instability and conflict in the streets."
What is the political mood right now in Venezuela? How does it compare, for example, to the aftermath of the 2006 presidential election?
After [the 2006] election, the gap was much larger--about a 25 percent gap. Now, the 10 percent gap [of the 2012 election] is much smaller, which shows that the opposition has grown. In fact, if you look at the absolute numbers you see that in each election--in 2006, then in 2010 for the national assembly, and now in 2012--they gained at least one million votes each time, whereas the governing party vote in each of those [situations] has varied a lot. In 2006, [Chávez] had a little over seven million [votes], in 2010 it went down to five million, and this time it’s back up to eight million.
The opposition is recognizing that they are growing. They still did not win the majority, but they have expressed their goal of working now toward the governors’ elections, and that’s very positive for them to not give up hope, to not be resigned and stop working. I think that we will see some working and campaigning for the governors’ elections coming on December 16.
On the governing side, President Chávez is viewing this [outcome] as a strong mandate, winning with ten points, which was more than many of the opinion polls indicated. Most opinion polls had indicated that he would win, but there was a great variety about the amount of his victory. He has announced that he will continue his program of "twenty-first-century socialism." The question now is [whether] he will make any changes and how he will respond to the 45 percent of the population that voted for Capriles.
Do you think Chávez takes the opposition movement seriously?
In his acceptance speech, he made a few overtures, but [he] basically [said]: Those who voted against him, but who were willing to come and work with him on his project, are very welcome. And he has said that before-- in 2006 and in 2004. That doesn’t mean he’s going to change his project to accommodate a different view.
He made a gesture [on Monday] by calling Henrique Capriles. They had a phone conversation, which apparently they both recorded as a cordial phone conversation. I hope that President Chávez will recognize the support that Capriles’ message of reconciliation received in the vote. I think that the 45 percent vote for Capriles was a response to his message of reconciliation and continuing many of Chávez’s social mission programs, which was part of Capriles’ campaign promise. Ideally, President Chávez would recognize that and work to make all Venezuelans feel that they are represented.
Are there are signs that Chávez has taken some of the criticisms against his leadership seriously? Has he indicated that he is going to make those issues priorities in the next administration?
He has said in public interviews that he realizes his government has made mistakes, and he wants to correct those mistakes. The real question is how. I expect that we’ll see a cabinet reshuffle, but really the question is how will the government address issues of making the government more efficient and having efficient public policy. He has also said one of his mistakes is that he personally has not given enough follow-up and has not been on top of the details of governing, and that’s where some of the mistakes came from. Of course, he’s been distracted with his illness over the past year. He said that he wants to create a follow-up ministry, a ministry of young people, who presumably would be trained technologically to follow public policymaking more carefully and inform him. Whether that will help or just add another layer of bureaucracy, we’ll have to see.
Chávez won by ten percentage points in the final vote. People expected the race to be a lot closer than it actually was. Why do you think it turned out the way it did?
Yes, it was a surprise, the size of the gap. Mainly, the expectation for a close race came from what looked like movement very near the end of the race toward Capriles. And so the question was how far up would it go just in the last few days when the polling had stopped.
So how do we explain this result? There are several things. One is if you look at the way pollsters measure different segments of the population. They have A and B, which are the top segments in terms of income and lifestyle, they have C, which is more of a middle class, and then they have D and E, which are the working class and poor. They measure it not only in income but in terms of lifestyle--what kind of house they have, what kind of education they have. Most of the pollsters in Venezuela measure class D and E to be 70 to 80 percent of the population. When you consider that, and you look at the promises of benefits from the government for things that will benefit their daily life, whether that’s a house, whether that’s an education, whether that’s a refrigerator, that probably explains some of the response. So it’s a combination of that kind of utilitarian vote: "Who is going to improve my life?"
Another aspect that is more political, emotional, and symbolic, has been underestimated by outsiders throughout Chávez’s administration. That is, his clear commitment to represent the people who have felt invisible in the past, [and] to empower them. He says that he embodies the people, and uses the symbolism of Bolivar’s sword and la patria, the fatherland, that makes a strong connection with people when combined with his charisma. So it’s not purely a utilitarian vote, but also this emotional and political tie to him that is extremely important to understand. And you just look at the faces during his rallies in his acceptance speech, [and] you can see in their faces the great faith they have in him.
Chávez’s health was also the wild card in this election. That factor didn’t seem to sway the vote.
It’s really interesting. His health was not a subject of conversation in the past few months. Not like with all the great uncertainty earlier this year, particularly when he was having his second surgery in Cuba and was recuperating and having radiation therapy in March and April. When he came back and started campaigning in June and July, and said in July he was in remission, it sort of dropped from the scene as the subject of conversation.
So it’s hard to tell how much that [affected] people’s vote, either voting for him out of sympathy or voting for him [because they were] sure that he’s cured and wanting him to continue, or some wanting to vote for him but didn’t because they weren’t sure about his health.
What are the prospects for the opposition to bounce back from its loss and maintain its vitality?
It’s going to be a challenge to remain united, but they have to if they want to continue to build. They are building momentum. But for the governors’ races, there will be multiple opportunities for the different parties within the opposition. They have chosen their candidates, which is very positive, so there won’t be a fight over candidates now. If they can maintain their unity and their optimism moving forward, they may have a strong showing.
For the first time [in the 2012 election], people were voting for an option instead of just against Chávez. Capriles gave a strong speech discarding the possibility of fraud and rejecting radicalism and anti-politics. He said the time for grieving was over and the opposition should move toward the governors’ race. It’s likely people will vote [for] governors based on their evaluation of performance rather than the emotional tie to Chávez. That’s what happened in 2008 when the opposition won the larger states and cities. So even though Chávez won twenty-one of twenty-three states on Sunday that does not necessarily determine the outcome of the next elections.
This campaign was polarizing and, at times, vitriolic, but now that the election is over, there is some talk of encouraging political unity. Do you think less divisiveness is a realistic possibility?
It’s a good question. From the opposition side, certainly the Capriles candidacy tried to focus on the positive, the future, the campaign message of "hay un camino," there’s a road forward, there’s progress. In the campaign, Chávez’s message was divisive and polarizing--that’s been his strategy throughout and won based on it. So I don’t know that he’ll have an incentive to change that strategy. He wants to enact his goals, feel like he has the mandate, and will move forward on that.
There are a lot of questions about the economy moving forward. Many economists have predicted that there will need to be [a currency] devaluation. Many are saying there’s a shortage of dollars in the country, which will hurt the market for imports, and Venezuela right now is very dependent on imports. I expect that in 2013, the government may have to make some difficult decisions, and in doing that, will not want to have a lot of instability and conflict in the streets. So perhaps under those conditions there will be more reaching out.