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VENEZUELA
Chávez wins, promising to “deepen” revolution
José Orozco
12/15/2006
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Despite leader’s resounding victory, he must combat crime, corruption.

Venezuelans voted not for a candidate but a socialist project, an elated, newly re-elected President Hugo Chávez told his soaked supporters, who braved a downpour to see him speak late Dec. 3.

Chávez won the election by a landslide, a resounding victory giving him another six years to implement his so-called Bolivarian Revolution.

Chávez captured almost 63 percent vote, topping his opponent, Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales, who won just short of 37 percent.

Minutes after the National Electoral Council announced the first bulletin, making a Chávez defeat all but impossible, the leader stepped onto Miraflores presidential palace’s "balcony of the people" to share his victory with supporters.

The victory gives Chávez a mandate to implement "21st century socialism," a political program he has not yet spelled out.

"Let’s dedicate ourselves to constructing that socialist Venezuela," Chávez said in his victory speech. "No one should fear socialism."

Chávez has proposed sweeping constitutional reform to achieve his vision for Venezuela.

Dep. Carlos Escarrá, who will head the constitutional reform, told the daily El Universal: "We will go from a neo-liberal economy to a social one." The reform proposes to "trade the concept of free competition for fair competition," he added.

That means recognizing not just private property but "collective" and "social" property in the Constitution. The new "anti-monopoly, anti-oligopoly and fair competition law," which would regulate prices, thus controlling profits, will also be established in the constitutional reform. Chávez has already raised taxes on luxury imports.

In the meantime, Chávez plans to maintain his "missions" — social programs such as free health clinics — aimed at the country’s poor, his core constituency. Chávez has poured billions of dollars into these programs thanks to windfall oil revenues.

Studying for her high school diploma, Gisela Martínez’s dream of being a psychologist seems within reach. "Other regimes excluded us," said Martínez. "Chávez got us out of the hills [slums], which is why we have what we have."

Waiting for Chávez to vote in the 23 de Enero slum in the capital, Freddy Bernal, the pro-Chávez mayor of the Libertador municipality in Caracas, said that the leader’s social programs were key to a his victory. But he listed greater political participation for the poor as the main reason why Chávez earned another term.

"People feel that democracy isn’t only for politicians," said Bernal. "Hugo Chávez has opened the path of popular participation and expression."

Rafael Lacava, a pro-Chávez lawmaker and member of the Chávez campaign, agreed that expanding "popular power" was one of the Chávez government’s top goals for the new term.

"One of the main elements will be transferring power to the people," he explained the day after the election, "giving them the protagonist role. That has to continue to deepen."

Lawmakers plan on giving "popular power" constitutional rank, along with the judicial, executive and other powers. New communal councils aim to give people at the grassroots level more power, including funds to carry out projects in their communities.

Enrique Márquez, a member of the opposition campaign, refused to give Chávez credit for the victory, blaming the loss on the short campaign and Chávez’s governmental backing.

But, he added, "it had more to do with our own mistakes than with Chávez." Márquez says the opposition must organize among the poor to have a chance at challenging Chávez.

"You can’t deny that our number one priority for the new year has to be building a popular base," he said.

Rosales’ dogged campaign energized a lot of anti-Chávez sectors, say analysts, creating a golden opportunity to build a movement. Rosales called it a "political triumph amid an electoral setback," terming the opposition a "powerful movement."

Based on their 37 percent, Márquez said that the opposition will push for new parliamentary elections to promote coexistence in this polarized country.

Rosales’ own constitutional reform proposal included respect for private property and four-year presidential terms. Chávez said he was open to suggestions from all sectors, but it seems unlikely that Rosales’ proposals will be debated.

Yet despite the opposition’s momentum — and Chávez’s weaknesses on crime, inefficiency, and corruption — Chávez will be tough to challenge. Analysts agree that he should only become more powerful.

Chávez has put in doubt the renewal of concessions for some privately-owned television stations, which would eliminate some of his harshest critics. He also plans a referendum on his indefinite re-election that critics fear will make Chávez president-for-life.

His charisma and social spending make Chavez a tough man to beat at the
ballot box. With allies controlling most state institutions, including the legislature and Supreme Court, Chavez is in the driver’s seat argues Mervin Rodríguez, a political analyst.

"The government’s excessive bureaucracy is full of ignorant people who idolize the president," explained Rodríguez. "That’s connected to the cult of personality where Chávez gets no criticism. Such a bureaucracy tends toward corruption."

Chávez himself has listed corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency as threats to his self-styled revolution, though analysts believe he may start weeding out corrupt officials.

Flush with oil profits and with vast power, Chávez has a unique opportunity to promote the country’s development, improving life for poor Venezuelans, and deepening political participation. Yet critics accuse him of authoritarianism, which, they argue, will only become accentuated in the new term.

"If Chávez doesn’t handle his administration with openness, he will spark another revolution," said Rodríguez.


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