That is what Chavez has been able to do on a grander scale, using Venezuela’s oil income and publicly owned enterprises to slash poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent, massively expanding access to health and education, boosting the minimum wage and pension provision, halving unemployment and giving slum communities direct control over social programs.
To visit any rally or polling station during the election campaign was to be left in no doubt as to who Chavez represents: the poor, the non-white, the young, the disabled — in other words, the dispossessed majority. Euphoria at the result among the poor was palpable: In the foothills of the Andes on Monday groups of red-shirted hillside farmers chanted and waved flags at any passerby.
Of course there are also no shortage of government failures and weaknesses the opposition was able to target: from runaway violent crime to corruption, lack of delivery and economic diversification and over-dependence on one man’s charismatic leadership. And the US-financed opposition campaign was a much more sophisticated affair than in the past. Capriles presented himself as “center-left,” despite his hard right background, and promised to maintain some Chavista social programs.
Even so, the Venezuelan president ended up almost 11 points ahead. And the opposition’s attempt to triangulate to the left only underlines the success of Chavez in changing Venezuela’s society and political terms of trade. He has shown himself to be the most electorally successful radical left leader in history. His re-election now gives him the chance to ensure Venezuela’s transformation is deep enough to survive him, to overcome the administration’s failures and help entrench the process of change across the continent.
Venezuela’s revolution does not offer a model that can be directly transplanted elsewhere, not least because oil revenues allow it to target resources on the poor without seriously attacking the interests of the wealthy. However, its social programs, experiments in direct democracy and success in bringing resources under public control offer lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world.
For all their problems and weaknesses, Venezuela and its Latin American allies have demonstrated that it is no longer necessary to accept a failed economic model, as many social democrats in Europe still do. They have shown it is possible to be both genuinely progressive and popular. Cynicism and media-fueled ignorance have prevented many who would naturally identify with Latin America’s transformation from recognizing its significance. However, Chavez’s re-election has now ensured that that process will continue — and that the space for 21st-century alternatives will grow.