Venezuela's Opposition Concedes: Chavez Is Here to Stay

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It's official: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez will be in office longer than his arch-nemesis, President George W. Bush. Following his reelection to a new six-year term by a wide margin on Sunday, Chavez promised a "new era in the national Bolivarian project," his program to use Venezuela's oil wealth to fund social programs as well as to bolster a regional united front against U.S. influence. Now, the scale of his victory — the National Electoral Council gave him a 23% lead over contender Manuel Rosales with over three-quarters of votes counted — will be claimed as a mandate to deepen his "socialist revolution," with the help of a legislature wholly under the control of his allies after the opposition boycotted last year's parliamentary elections.

Still, this is hardly the first time Chavez has boisterously threatened further radicalization of his revolution, and Venezuela is still far from the Latin American Marxist nightmare that Washington fears it will become. Chavez has certainly cracked down on foreign oil companies and expropriated private property, but he still presides over a far-from-socialist society that loves its Scotch whisky and shopping malls.

But revolutions are first and foremost about power, and the most dramatic reform that Chavez may seek — and the most worrisome to his foes — is a constitutional change to remove term limits on the presidency and allow him to run again in 2012. He also says he could create a single party out of the many that support him. The president denied last week that such reforms pointed to increasing authoritarianism, and assured that any constitutional reform would have to pass through a national referendum. "This isn't a dictatorship," he said. "It's democracy."

Chavez's staying power, however, could depend on the opposition's ability to rebound from a demoralizing loss and maintain the unity it established on the campaign trail to end years of self-defeating bickering among its various parties. Rosales' brief concession speech suggested the opposition may have resolved to accept that Chavez won't be ousted any time soon, and to instead take the long view and strengthen their movement through grassroots organizational work — a counterintuitive option for a movement that has its origins in two parties of the political and economic elite that had maintained a lock on power for 40 years.

Rosales surprised many on Sunday by refraining from crying electoral fraud — the opposition had accused the government of rigging the vote in the two previous elections. Supermarket shelves in the capital had been emptied last week in anticipation of chaos sparked by a contested election result. Instead, the streets of Caracas were quiet on Monday. The opposition may finally be abandoning the claim that Chavez can stay in power only by cheating. "The truth is that even with a tighter margin we recognize that today they defeated us," Rosales said Sunday night. "But we'll keep fighting."

It was Chavez's bedrock support among the poor, shored up by the government programs that ensure cheap food and free health care, that once again ensured his victory. Unless the opposition is able to find a message and policies that resonate with the impoverished majority, it will remain in the political wilderness.

For now, the nearly 40% of Venezuelans who voted for Rosales on Sunday still have no representation in the legislature. "I want a change, above all for my son," said Fabiola Pereira, a hairstylist, after voting for Rosales in the upper-middle-class Caracas neighborhood of Altamira. "If Chavez takes more power we don't know what else he'll invent. It scares me. Anything can happen in six years."

One thing that may be predictable is that Chavez will continue to rail against Washington. He proclaimed his victory a defeat for the U.S. and dedicated it to the Cuban people and their ailing leader, Fidel Castro. After years of listening to their leader pounding away at Bush, Chavez supporters appear to believe that Washington is their main enemy. "This is a lesson we're going to give to Bush, because he's interested in our oil reserves," said Luis Jose Moreno, a voter in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Petare, about his conviction that Chavez would win. "Get out of here, Bush."

But Bush will, indeed, leave office before Chavez. And the Venezuelan president likes to remind audiences that Bill Clinton was a man he respected. So, if the White House reverts to the Democrats in 2008, Chavez may have more trouble rousing his base with anti-U.S. rhetoric.