The election, which ultimately resulted in a win for incumbent Hugo Chavez, was seen by many as a critical point in determining Venezuela’s history.
The majority of Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. live in Florida. Most of these were awarded political asylum as opponents of the Chavez regime, fearful of oppression in what has been a largely corrupt and unfruitful era. Such immigrants may cast a ballot at the Venezuelan consulate, although earlier this year Hugo Chavez closed the Consulate in Miami, a retaliation for the U.S. expelling the Consul based on claims she was involved in a cyber attack plot. Others suggest the move was aimed at preventing those in Florida from voting, most of whom would support Chavez’s removal and vote accordingly.
In some respects, the election was surprisingly fair, considering the grip Chavez has over the system there. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, ran a relatively unencumbered campaign, garnering much public support, and ultimately taking nearly 45 percent of the vote. It was the strongest challenge anyone has posed to Chavez since his 1999 election to office.
In other respects, Chavez was never likely to lose this election. He controls much of the media in Venezuela, and has his hands deep in the pockets of the nation’s oil companies. As the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, that means big money. In recent months, he has used this wealth to hand out cash, food and even houses to citizens, inevitably increasing his popularity.
Blinded by such short-term incentives, many Venezuelans voting for Chavez failed to see the long-term negative effects his reign has brought. Most oil-exporting countries have seen huge economic wealth from the business, yet Chavez’s heavy control of Venezuelan industry, part of his program of socialism for the country, has failed to bring the expected dividends to the people. In fact, Venezuela made only $51 billion in net oil export revenues in 2011, ranking 8th in the world and a long way behind the $265 billion made by Saudi Arabia which has fewer total oil reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Most of Chavez’s opponents cite economic strife, rampant crime and high levels of violence as their reasons for protesting the leader. Accusing him of being out of touch with reality, dissenters insist that Chavez simply hasn’t delivered on his promises.
Chavez’s re-election is not welcomed news for the U.S. government. As a consistent opponent of the U.S., Chavez has held little back in criticizing his counterparts to the North. In a speech given before the UN General Assembly in 2006, Chavez criticized then President George W. Bush over his foreign policy, referring to him as “the Devil.” He continues to insist that the U.S. was involved in a number of covert plots to overthrow him. He has also maintained strong ties with opponents of the U.S., such as Cuba, Iran and Russia. Earlier this year, Chavez hosted a visit from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad where the two made jibes at the U.S. and even joked about possessing an atomic bomb.
The future for Venezuela is unclear at this early stage. As Chavez begins his third six-year term, the people will be looking for him to come good on his promises. There is every indication that Chavez plans to hold the office for the rest of his life. In 2009, he pushed through a constitutional amendment removing term limits for presidents. Some may now be looking beyond 2018 for the end of his control of the country.
However, many believe Chavez will not even last as long as 2018. The once youthful and vibrant leader has become fragile and disheveled after undergoing three surgeries in 12 months to remove cancerous tumors from his pelvic region. He insists he is now cancer-free and healthy enough to lead the country for six more years, yet many are not so confident.
His death or incapacitation after more than four years of his term would bring Vice President Nicolás Maduro to power. An open critic of the U.S., many fear he would be highly incapable of managing Venezuela’s increasing woes. Should Chavez leave office within four years, elections would be held, and the young and energetic Capriles, with mounting support behind him, will almost certainly be waiting in the wings.