How Hugo Chávez Wins by Losing in Venezuela


Consider what President Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” has wrought on Venezuela. The national economy is deep in recession. Chronic power outages darken homes, factories, and shops. Inflation, at 30 percent a year, ranks among the world’s worst. Ditto for murders, which according to official numbers spiked to 21,132 in 2009—or one homicide every half hour. Just about anywhere on the planet, such failed leadership would prove toxic for an incumbent and bolster his challenger. But in Venezuela, where Chávez presides with a combination of fear, favors, cooked books, and rigged rules, the standard political calculus doesn’t always apply.

Chávez has suffered, surely. Serial crises have galvanized his enemies, frustrated loyalists, and sunk his approval rating below 40 percent. That’s his lowest level since taking office in 1999. But Chávez has already launched a preemptive strike; last year the pliant Congress redrew the electoral map, giving more legislative seats to rural areas, where Chavismo is still strong. So even if Chávez’s foes win the most populous regions, they could still come short of a congressional majority. (To achieve that, opposition candidates would need to garner close to 60 percent of the national vote.)

The test will be on Sept. 26, when the country goes to the polls to vote in nationwide congressional elections. Experts expect Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) to suffer losses, but not collapse. The respected pollster Luis Vicente León, of Datanálisis, predicts that voters will split almost evenly, with 52 percent casting ballots for Chavista candidates and 48 percent for opponents. More than sweeping the country, Chávez’s opponents’ immediate aim is to win enough seats—pollsters say the magic number is 57—to overturn the government’s two-thirds majority, which assures the Chavistas their stranglehold on Congress. That won’t be easy. (Chávez now controls 82 percent of the legislature.) But it would deny the government the power to change the Constitution, revive the clout of the opposition, and so force Chávez to negotiate reforms.

Sharing power is not part of the Bolivarian script. Since coming to office 11 years ago, Chávez has grown accustomed to having his way, rewarding friends, outmaneuvering opponents, charming the masses, and suffocating dissent. With his aura slipping, critics now fear that an electoral loss could trigger an authoritarian backlash before the new legislature is seated in January. “Chavez’s allies would still have 100 days to do what they want,” says Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN who predicts Chávez could even try to install a Cuban-style national assembly with its own council and president as a shadow power. The critics and pundits have long pontificated about the dangers to Venezuela and Latin America of a fortified Chávez government. They forgot to warn about the dangers of the patriarch in autumn.