Re-election Lament

Hugo Chávez’s resounding election victory in Venezuelan presidential election on Sunday set me at war with myself. My thinking self isn’t at all surprised by what happened: it’s easy to account for the charismatic president of a petrostate being re-elected in middle of an oil boom. But my feeling self is crushed. My country has squandered its last best hope to stop its descent into all-out personalism. More than a president, Venezuela has something like an elected monarch, who rules with absolute authority, no checks+balances. (Francisco Toro – NYT – 09/10/2012)

The argument about how difficult it is to dislodge a populist leader when oil prices are in the triple digits is straightforward. Petrostates aren’t like normal countries, where governments depend on people and the companies they tax to ensure a reasonable funding stream. Instead, they depend on the black goo they pump out of the ground, and in turn the people and companies depend on them. The basic balance of power between the state and the individual is upended. The related political economy is simple: black goo goes out of the country in tankers, and finished goods come in in container ships. Since the black goo belongs to the state, so do imported goods. And when the state controls the distribution of finished goods in an economy, it becomes hyper-empowered; it gets to control many levers that are easy enough to turn into votes. That huge amounts of money are squandered, wasted, stolen in the process is neither here nor there: sums involved are astronomical, certainly great enough to afford both runaway populism and hardcore graft. Over the last few months, as I’ve hoped against hope that a brilliant opposition campaign could somehow short-circuit this bedeviled logic, one Chavista program kept bringing me back to a dour realization it just wasn’t likely. Program, called “My well-equipped home,” essentially is an oil-for-appliances deal signed with China under which over 1.3 million Haier brand appliances, stoves, washers and dryers, flat-screen TVs, were distributed to government supporters at discounted prices. Chávez’s face is, as you’d expect, stenciled right into program’s logo.

It was a brilliant gambit, cynical and effective. Imagine, for a second, your life without a washing machine. Then imagine how thoroughly it would be transformed if you suddenly got one. And now multiply that by 1.3 million households, and you begin to see the extreme, possibly insurmountable structural advantage an incumbent has in a re-election race in a petrostate. It may be that such populism is immune to challenge at the ballot box, at least when energy prices are high. When Chávez was first elected, in 1998, oil prices were hovering around $10 per barrel; that crippled the ability of old system to turn oil into votes. Today, a barrel of oil sells for more than $100. To the average Venezuelan voter, access to the basics of a decent life means access to his or her little parcel of the petrostate pie, and supporting Chávez is the smart way to do that. That this ends up giving the incumbent carte blanche to pursue policies are wasteful, corrupt, authoritarian, sporadically downright criminal doesn’t necessarily register. Abstractions of constitutional government are distant indeed when you feel you owe the guy in power everything makes your life bearable. 

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

3 Responses to Re-election Lament

  1. Professor Uziel Nogueira says:


    The best line on the Venezuelan election “until the opposition can tell the largely poor people who continue to return Chavez to office that the petrostate can be made to work for everyone without Chavez it will continue to lose elections.”

    Venezuela’s political, social and economic context is the norm throughout Latin America. Something similar to Chavez did happen in Brazil when Lula da Silva of Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) won the presidency in 2002. He was reelected in 2006 and helped elected his PT colleague Dilma Roussef in 2010. Ms. Rousseff is expected to be reelected in 2014. The election of Lula da Silva is transcendental for two reasons. For the first time ever a truly representative party of the poor, the majority of the population, came to power. Second, Lula DELIVERED what he had promised during the campaign. The extraordinary feat of PT/Lula is that the poor is becoming middle class, the economy is well managed and social changes occur in peace and total respect for public institutions. Even the judiciary – a retro institution- has surprised and become a rallying force behind progressive social policies that help the poor and curtail political corruption. Mexico –second largest economy in LA and close US ally — is a mirror image of VEN/BR. Elected Pena Nieto can govern as ‘business as usual ‘ as his predecessors did in the past or choose the path of Brazil and Lula/PT. If he chooses the former, the country is in deep social trouble.

    http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/mourning-chavezs-reelection-as-venezuelas-president/

  2. After Hugo Chávez’s easy re-election as Venezuela’s president on Sunday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina took to Twitter for the first time in almost a week. She sent five messages in quick succession, congratulating Chávez and Venezuela. “Your victory is also ours,” she wrote. Chávez quickly echoed the sentiment. “Cristina, this victory is also for Argentina,” he told a roaring crowd of supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace after his win was confirmed. “Latin America won today.” It was more than just an exchange of pleasantries. Since his rise to power in 1999, Chávez has been at the forefront of a leftist and anti-American populist wave that has swept much of the region. The alliance that Kirchner, and before her, her late husband and predecessor Néstor, formed with Chávez helped their governments during hard times, when Argentina was still recovering from its economic collapse of a decade ago. That relationship has brought Argentina economic benefits: oil, credit and maybe even campaign cash for Kirchner. It has brought political benefits: Kirchner has been able to portray her government as part of an epic battle that unites Latin America against Western corporate interests. Judging by the excitement that Chávez’s victory on Sunday generated among her base, that narrative remains powerful. Comparisons between Argentina and Venezuela are frequent. Both leaders often force their speeches on all radio and TV networks, they’re fond of criticizing the media, they have instituted stringent foreign-exchange controls, and they run high-inflation economies that rely on commodities exports to finance massive public spending. So Argentines followed the campaign in Venezuela with keen interest, watching for signs of what may be in store for them here. Now Chávez’s victory looks to some like strong evidence that the benefits of this model of governance continue to outweigh the costs (…..)

    http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/chavezs-re-election-is-a-boost-to-argentinas-kirchner/

  3. Professor Uziel Nogueira says: I know Venezuela and Argentina quite well. Argentina is NOT Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner is NOT Hugo Chavez. The only similarity is that both politicians would love to be Pres For Life. Unfortunately for Cristina Kirchner, Argentina does not possess 500 billion barrels of oil in reserve as Venezuela of Chavez does. In consequence, Cristina cannot play the political game of easy petro money to help ‘los descamisados argentinos’. Credit should be given to Cristina in paying to play since her and her former husband Nestor came to power in 2003. The only problem is that Argentina’s treasury just run out of money after her reelection in 2011.


    Cristina’s disastrous economic policies achieved something extraordinary. In a global financial system washed in trillions of cheap dollars. Argentina is the only country in which the dollar is a scarce commodity.

    http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/chavezs-re-election-is-a-boost-to-argentinas-kirchner/

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