- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008




Against the odds, the Venezuelan opposition delivered a stiff rebuff in Sunday’s election to hemispheric nuisance Hugo Chavez, whose brand of socialism is as grandiose as it is incompetent.

Nonetheless, Chavez proclaimed the outcome “a revolutionary victory,” but it was an incomplete one. True, his party won 17 states, but they are mostly rural. The opposition won the five most economically important states and the two largest cities, including the capital, Caracas. The opposition now governs 40 percent of Venezuela’s people.

The election results rather clouded what Mr. Chavez clearly believed was a strategic triumph, the arrival of four Russian warships for joint naval exercises, which is almost comical when you think about it. Although a State Department spokesman piled on a bit when he expressed the hope the fleet was accompanied by tugboats in case of a breakdown.

Russia would like to make diplomatic inroads in Latin America but it can’t be helpful to the Kremlin’s self-esteem that its best friend in the region in widely regarded as a buffoon.

Mr. Chavez labored mightily to skew the results of the election. He increased public spending by 60 percent and an electoral panel he controls kept 300 opposition candidates off the ballot. And he threatened to call out the military if a close ally of his lost his state election. The ally, a rabidly pro-Chavez talk show host, lost anyway.

It was Mr. Chavez’s second setback in less than a year. Last December, the voters rejected proposed constitutional reforms that would have strengthened his grip on power. He is still trying to find a way to evade term limits that would force him to leave office in 2012.

Venezuelans are increasingly disenchanted with his government — 30 percent inflation, runaway food prices, violent crime and Colombian guerrillas openly setting up shop in the country. Falling oil prices have hurt Mr. Chavez’s ability to buy votes at home and friends abroad. And now he doesn’t even have President Bush to kick around anymore.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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