Venezuela's Hugo Chávez finally emerged from his electoral slump. After mediocre results in municipal and state governors' elections late last year, and a scathing defeat in a constitutional referendum in December 2007, in February he convincingly won a virtual plebiscite on his indefinite stay in office by a margin of nearly 10 percent. While the constitutionality of the referendum was arguable—the same proposition allowing the eternal reelection of the president was rejected in 2007—and there is some evidence of electronic tampering, even the opposition was forced to acknowledge Chávez's victory, which made pressing the claims of fraud practically impossible.
This was undoubtedly not an exemplary contest. Chávez used every conceivable instrument of the state, every imaginable subterfuge, every trick in the book, to stack the deck in his favor and against his opponents. He made sure, this time, that all his supporters turned out, and he blackmailed every sector of Venezuela by suggesting that his defeat would bring the social programs he has implemented to an end. The truth about those programs is that they are not very effective, and if they are eventually cut back or terminated, the blame will fall on the low price of oil and Chávez's own reckless economic policies. In any case, Chávez won, and will get to run for reelection to another six-year term at the end of 2012, which will keep him in power until January of 2019 at least. If he wins again then, he could become the longest reigning elected president in history anywhere.
Meantime, he will have to decide what road he wishes to travel. The constraints he faces are tighter than before, and his leeway is inevitably narrower, despite his triumph. The opposition obtained more than 5.2 million votes out of a total of 11.5 million—a larger amount than ever before—and now has several strong options to field against Chávez in 2012. The main contender, Leopoldo López, is a young, effective and charismatic former mayor of one of Caracas's most diverse boroughs, who practically launched his campaign the night of the referendum.
Still, the opposition remains divided and will have trouble curtailing Chávez's force. Their defeat may prove dispiriting, and Chávez has the power to concentrate even more power in his hands, as well as further clamping down on the media, the judiciary, the unions, human-rights groups, the business community, students and the opposition. While he reached out to his rivals on the night of his victory, he is likely to continue to govern in an authoritarian fashion, despite having reached power, and remained there, more or less democratically—a pattern also followed by his brethren, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and perhaps Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
The real restrictions Chávez will face are economic. His popularity at home and abroad owes mostly to his largesse at home and abroad, and that largesse is coming to an end. The price of oil has fallen by two thirds since its high mark last July; PDVSA, the state-run petroleum company, has not been able to return to its previous production levels, let alone increase exports, and the country's economy has become, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from the oil-dependent Persian Gulf Emirate.
Chávez was able to postpone any economic adjustment until after the vote, but he has now run out of time. The value of the currency on the official exchange rate is roughly half the black-market figure; money is leaving by the bushels, and inflation is the highest in Latin America. Chávez is in trouble, at least on the economic front.
He has two options. One is the establishment of an economic plan that reins in public spending at home and abroad, whether in Cuba or the Bronx, London or the Andean highlands; devalues the currency; and invites back foreign and local private investors. That last move would also require an end to the harassment of the business sector and Chávez's penchant for nationalizing everything that moves. In this scenario, some sort of rapprochement with the United States would also be in the cards.
While this would be the sensible course to follow, and probably the one a resuscitated and mellowing Fidel Castro is advising, it would be somewhat uncharacteristic of Chávez to pursue it. The more likely path is more confrontation with his domestic and foreign opponents, more spending and inflation, more involvement in foreign adventures (the next one on his radar is the March presidential election in El Salvador), more futile attempts to prop up oil prices through OPEC and more subsidies to his clientele in the poor ranchos, or slums, of Caracas.
At some point, if the world economic crisis continues, and the people tire of unfulfilled promises, Chávez will fall. But many observers and critics, including this author, have been forecasting such an outcome for years now, and Chávez has proved us all wrong; he has a remarkable resiliency and knack for survival. Indeed, he may outlast us all.