Don't Cry For Me, Caracas

It looked like a low-budget remake of "Evita." The Latin American strongman, his blond wife at his side, addresses the enraptured masses from the balcony of a presidential palace. The "sovereign people"--as Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez likes to call them--had given the former paratroops commander a resounding victory in elections July 30. Chavez barely waited for the first results before donning his trademark red beret and taking to what he has dubbed "the people's balcony." To thunderous cheers, he declared, "Today begins a new phase of the revolution."

Just two days after his 46th birthday, the man who once led a failed military coup had won his fifth straight election triumph in 20 months. His margin of victory was even greater than when he was first elected president in 1998 (59 percent to 38 percent for his main rival). In three polls last year voters approved his sweeping reforms, abolishing the old political order. Now the latest vote gave his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) a congressional majority and, with its allies, three fifths of the chamber--allowing Chavez to legislate by decree and making him the most powerful elected president in Venezuelan history.

What will he do with his mandate? Some commentators say the president is unlikely to abandon the confrontational style that propelled him to power. But in his first televised address after re-election, Chavez was strikingly conciliatory. Announcing that the "hour of maximum tolerance" had arrived, he called for consultations with all sectors of society. Not everyone took him at his word. Troops had to be dispatched to the states of Merida and Cojedes to put down opposition protests alleging election fraud. Clashes left one young man dead and several injured.

International observers judged the elections fair. But Washington may have other worries. For instance, the United States fears that Chavez is too chummy with Fidel Castro and Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, and not fully committed to the war on drugs. Similarly, while the State Department was quick to congratulate him, it cautioned that he faces severe economic and social challenges. With unemployment at 14 percent and the country struggling to emerge from deep recession, even Chavez acknowledged the need for a major effort to improve the economy.

History offers one possible clue to the future: Chavez is an admirer of Gen. Juan Peron. Hero of the "descamisados," or shirtless ones, he and his wife Evita towered over Argentine politics for almost four decades. Championing the poor, Peron pursued a "third way" between capitalism and socialism and fought the church. (Uncannily, he won his first presidential election with the same percentage of votes as Chavez.) That all ended when the Army, resentful of his personality cult, finally overthrew him. In recent weeks two officers have been cashiered for demanding that Chavez resign. But with the presidential term extended to six years under the new Constitution, and re-election allowed, Chavez believes he'll be around for a long time. "On July 5, 2011," he roared from the people's balcony, "Venezuela will be great once more." That's the day the country celebrates its bicentennial. And the man in the red beret fully intends to lead the party.