Despite the dreams and expectations of democrats the world over, the era of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela did not come to an end on Oct. 7. The ailing President was re-elected, for the third time, to a new six-year term, which, if he serves it out, will have kept him in office for 20 years. Health permitting, he will become the longest-serving, more or less democratically elected President in Latin American history. Not a minor achievement.
His margin of victory more than 1.5 million votes, or nearly 11% of the ballots cast was large enough to discourage the opposition, led by an outstanding candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, from contesting the results. Not that Capriles lacked grounds for protest: Chávez resorted to every trick in the book, from padding electoral rolls to spending enormous amounts of petrodollars on his campaign, from stacking the electoral council and ballot-box commissions to implicitly threatening opposition voters with the loss of their homes, schools and clinics if they didn't vote for him. But Chávez's opponents wisely decided that conceding the election would prove fruitful in the future. And the future could be sometime soon.
We know how Chávez won, but we don't know how long he will remain in power, because the nature of the President's cancer remains a state secret. Under existing law in Venezuela, if the head of state dies or is found unfit to govern during the first four years of his or her term, a new election must be scheduled within 30 days. Every poll taken in the year preceding the Oct. 7 vote showed that Capriles would defeat any Chavista surrogate. Hence the opposition's bet: accept defeat now and wait for another, better chance.
What do we know about the origins of Chávez's notable triumph? Three factors explain it best: oil, Cubans and charisma. Since 2003, barely five years after his first election, Chávez has centralized revenues generated by unprecedented oil prices and channeled them into subsidies of all conceivable sorts. Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company, has generated revenues of over $800 billion over the past 10 years, and Chávez has dispensed this wealth cynically and adroitly. The company owns supermarkets, bakeries, clinics, schools and other holdings, and Chávez runs it as if it were his. Meanwhile, the growing Chinese and Indian demand for energy, together with other international factors, keeps oil prices high.
But none of this would have been possible without the thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, sports instructors, military trainers and bodyguards in Venezuela who are responsible for delivering at least some of the money to the poor, for guaranteeing the President's security and for constructing a popular militia to ensure that the army harbors no new insurrectional temptations, as it did in 2002. The Cuban doctors live and work in the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas and other large cities. And the island's legendary security details are highly reliable. (They have thwarted countless attempts on Fidel Castro's life over the past half-century.) Chávez has controlled his military through widespread corruption and purges while depending on the effectiveness and loyalty of his Cuban allies and tacitly threatening the military with an armed, popular alternative: the Cuban-backed militias.
But all the oil and Cubans in the world would not have sufficed to defeat the opposition by such a wide margin, despite voters daily facing inflation, huge devaluations of the currency, violence in Caracas unparalleled in Latin America, power outages and the gradual disappearance of the country's industry. Chávez is simply a formidable campaigner with an uncanny knack for the right quip and an impressive connection with a large segment of his country's people. The white-skinned, cosmopolitan elites largely detest him, but the dark-skinned impoverished inhabitants of the slums of Caracas and small towns revere him.
Latin America has never known anyone quite like this. Argentina's Juan Perón won two presidential elections his first time around before he was ousted by a coup after 10 years in office. (He was elected again nearly 20 years later but died soon after.) Chávez has won three elections and one recall vote and has already been in office longer than leaders like Perón, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Peru's Alberto Fujimori. He may well be destroying his country and making an incredible nuisance of himself in the international arena, but what a show he provides!
Castañeda was Foreign Minister of Mexico and teaches Latin American studies at New York University