Venezuela’s President Chavez Easily Wins Re-election

With 78 percent of voting stations reporting, Chavez had won 61 percent of the vote, while opposition Manuel Rosales trailed at 38 percent.

In a victory speech before a crowd of thousands of supporters, Chavez called for an “expansion of the [socialist] revolution” to redistribute proceeds from the nation’s oil wealth among the country’s poor.

Chavez, who called President Bush the “devil” before the United Nations in September, repeated the slur and attributed partial credit for his resounding victory to increasing dissatisfaction among Venezuelan people with U.S. policies.

“It’s another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world,” Chavez told a crowd of red-shirted supporters. “Down with imperialism. We need a new world.”

Chavez was first elected in 1998, and since then has increasingly dominated all branches of Venezuelan government, as his allies now control Congress, state offices and the judiciary, due in part to the opposition’s boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Although current Venezuelan law limits all presidents to no more than two terms, some fear Chavez will amend the constitution in hopes of seeking re-election in 2012.

Many see Chavez’s election as evidence of an increasingly polarized Venezuelan society, with the anti-Chavez middle and upper classes pitted against the poor masses. Chavez has found widespread support amongst the poor with multibillion dollar social programs that included subsidized food, medical care, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers.

Chavez insists he is a democrat and will respect private property, though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he may nationalize utilities. His opponent Rosales called the election a choice between freedom and increasing state control of people’s lives.

Despite their popularity among some segments of Venezuelan society, though, Chavez’s social programs depend upon high oil revenues and are unsustainable, critics say.

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge for Chavez’s next term will be “how to institutionalize these reforms and empower the population to become independent actors in this process,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American history at Pomona University.

Although Salas is hesitant to predict what steps Chavez might take, he said he thinks Chavez’s greatest challenges during his next term will be dealing with the huge unemployment numbers, supplying viable housing and reducing Venezuela’s high crime crates.

Washington and Caracas have had a shaky relationship since Chavez’s first election, and there has been critical rhetoric slung between the two administrations. The Venezuelan government claims the United States was behind a 2002 coup, which resulted in Chavez’s ousting for a mere 48 hours.

However, Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, and many see a parasitic relationship between the two countries despite their public battles.

“I don’t see a massive rupture of relations with the U.S. in the short term,” said Nikolas Kozloff, author of “Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the United States.” “Although both countries may want a divorce, they’re in a marriage of convenience at this point.”

There hasn’t been an official U.S. reaction to the election, although both Iran and the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood Monday praised the election results, offering their support to Chavez and his resistance to Washington’s policies.

Salas thinks the election reflects two emerging trends: the Venezuelan people’s strong support for Chavez, as evidenced by civic participation and peaceful elections, and solidarity in Latin America for “progressive, neo-populist governments” that share a desire toward achieving equality and reducing poverty. Chavez is the fourth Latin American leftist to win a presidential election in the last five weeks.