- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

Contrary to widespread pundit opinion, Hugo Chavez is not invincible. The past several months have seen a steady decline in his popularity at home and abroad. In short, his bid to revolutionize Latin America and the Caribbean, once hailed as inevitable, has faltered; the balloon of success has seriously deflated.

Since the FMLN’s victory with Mauricio Funes in El Salvador’s March 2009 presidential election, things have not gone well for the Venezuelan despot’s goal to create Bolivarian socialist governments throughout the region. The win was a fluke, as the ultraleft FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) recruited popular TV broadcaster Mr. Funes and benefited from hundreds of Cuban activists and millions of Venezuelan dollars.

Since then, center-right or at the least non-Chavista candidates have won elections in five countries, beginning with the victory of Ricardo Martinelli in Panama in May. Mr. Martinelli, who had received just 5 percent of the vote in a 2004 presidential bid, won 60 percent of the vote, trouncing his leftist rival, who had been supported heavily by Mr. Chavez.

Six months later, two elections on Nov. 29 were particularly noteworthy, the one in Uruguay and the other in Honduras.

In Uruguay, former guerrilla leader Jose Mujica won a runoff to become the country’s second leftist president in 150 years, but not of the Chavez variety. Rather, the avuncular agriculturalist announced he had renounced “stupid ideologies,” vowed not to quash democratic institutions and declared his affinity with outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Moreover, Mr. Mujica, who was inaugurated on March 1 in Montevideo, has repeatedly declared his determination to strengthen ties with the United States, a distinctly non-Chavista position.

The same day, Hondurans elected conservative Porfirio Lobo to succeed interim President Roberto Micheletti, selected by the Honduran Congress to complete the term of President Manuel Zelaya, who had been ousted last June by order of Honduras’ Supreme Court and an overwhelming vote of the country’s Congress.

This was perhaps the most humiliating defeat for the dictator from Caracas and his Cuban communist cohorts, as they had led a failed all-out effort, first to return Chavez-wannabe Zelaya to the presidency and then to boycott the election. Backing from Washington, the Organization of American States and virtually all the region’s governments notwithstanding, tiny, impoverished Honduras held firm despite losing its U.S. and European financial lifelines. Although Venezuelan funds and Cuban organizers flooded the country in an attempt to persuade voters to ignore the election, EU parliamentary observers characterized the election as one of “enthusiasm, democracy and transparency.”

Then, in January, Chilean conservative candidate Sebastian Pinera won a runoff presidential vote versus former President Eduardo Frei to become the first center-right electoral victor in 52 years. Mr. Pinera’s victory must have been a particularly bitter ideological loss for Mr. Chavez, as Chile’s new president, who assumed office March 11, is a billionaire and reportedly the country’s wealthiest individual.

Feb. 7 saw the latest non-Chavez presidential victory, the fifth in a row, when former Costa Rican First Vice President Laura Chinchilla was elected to succeed her political mentor, outgoing President Oscar Arias. Although a center-leftist, Ms. Chinchilla ran and won on a center-right campaign of security and prosperity and will assume office in May.

Prior to the elections in Panama, Uruguay, Honduras, Chile and Costa Rica, it had seemed Mr. Chavez’s momentum was unstoppable. After all, presidential candidates supported by Venezuela’s president had been successful in eight of nine previous head-of-state elections. In just nine months, however, center-right and simply non-Chavez candidates have won five national elections.

Although this is a very promising trend, there are major hurdles ahead in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru. October elections in Brazil are the single biggest prize, with the winner of Colombia’s election in May earning the silver medal. President Lula da Silva has helped his Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff become the candidate of the Workers’ Party to oppose Sao Paulo Gov. Jose Serra, who was defeated by Mr. Lula da Silva in the 2002 presidential election.

Ms. Rousseff, a radical leftist, has been campaigning actively and gaining steadily on Mr. Serra, who has not as yet campaigned actively and holds a slim 52 percent to 48 percent advantage over his opponent.

Even though Ms. Rousseff has not openly avowed common cause with Mr. Chavez, the recent proximity of Mr. Lula da Silva with the Venezuelan revolutionary makes the Brazilian campaign a clear test of Chavista appeal in Latin America’s largest nation. Victory will give the winning side important momentum for future contests.

In Colombia, the presidential race is wide open following President Alvaro Uribe’s decision not to seek re-election. For now, the leading candidate is Mr. Uribe’s former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, credited as the single most important leader in the fight against communist narco-terrorists; however, the situation is fluid, and there are several well-known and attractive candidates in the field. Look for a close race, which likely will be settled by a runoff.

At home, Mr. Chavez faces a major test in September’s legislative elections. Despite pitting the government’s financial and organizational muscle against a fractious opposition, he should find the going difficult. Having been humiliated in November 2008 state and local elections despite spending huge sums and doing everything possible to assure victory, Mr. Chavez will do everything in his power to retain his vicelike grip on Venezuela’s Congress.

That will not be easy. Mr. Chavez’s approval rating has fallen to 39 percent as unbridled crime, surging inflation and failing water and electricity have turned the long-suffering denizens of Caracas’ fetid ranchos against their one-time hero. The public finally is wearying of their ever-speaking, ever-promising president.

Mr. Chavez is down, a position in which he has often found himself over the years, but still not out. Thus, the question remains: Although his revolutionary balloon has deflated, will it finally burst?

John R. Thomson, a geopolitical analyst and former diplomat, writes on the developing world.

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