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Posted Tuesday, August 16, 2004 at 9:32 a.m. CDT


Analysis: Venezuela's Chávez wins landslide victory


By Bart Jones

Caracas, Venezuela

Editor’s note: Bart Jones will be covering the Venezuelan recall referendum for NCR. His reports and analysis will appear here and in future issues.

Amid a record voter turnout and fueled by massive support from Venezuela's poor majority, President Hugo Chávez won a crushing victory in what many say is the first recall referendum ever held against a democratically-elected president.

Chávez's landslide triumph by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin according to initial results was announced at about 4 a.m. today, setting off fireworks and wild celebrations in much of the city and counter protests in other areas.

Some opposition leaders immediately claimed Chávez won by fraud and demanded an investigation.

His decisive victory surprised some observers because of the portrait painted of him repeatedly in the mainstream media as a "dictator-in-the-making" who allegedly has destroyed Venezuela's economy, trampled on human rights and plans a Cuba-style communist regime.

Other experts contend that image is a vast exaggeration or even a caricature, and blamed the media for missing or ignoring half of the Chávez story -- the half that explains how he and his movement won his eighth vote in six years in clean and open elections certified by international observers.

Also by Bart Jones

The week before the referendum, posted Aug. 10 Venezuela’s Chávez gathers momentum as recall approaches

An NCR cover story from April 2: Where the money goes.

An NCR story from May 3, 2002: Poor of Venezuela bring down coup, but divisions remain

Watch for updates and more coverage of this issue.

The votes included elections for president (twice), Congress and a referendum on a new constitution that includes the recall mechanism.

"Day after day, they (the mainstream media) are presenting grotesque distortions in relation to what is happening in Venezuela," said Edgardo Lander, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. He said that in the days leading to the vote as it appeared Chávez would win, some of the media quickly backtracked and tried to explain why he has widespread support after missing the story for years and presenting "extremely biased" coverage.

While some experts contend Chávez and his government are hardly flawless, they say the latest victory of the firebrand leftist also underscores a rising tide of progressive movements that are sweeping Latin America in a backlash against neo-liberal economic programs also known as the "Washington Consensus." Leftists have risen to power in Brazil and Argentina, and head powerful social movements in countries including Bolivia.

Critics of Chávez contend he is just the latest in a long line of populist "caudillos" or strongmen who have appeared throughout Latin American history, handing out free goods and services in programs that lead to little long-term improvement in people's lives.

The country remains polarized between his supporters -- mainly poor people in the oil-rich yet impoverished nation -- and his detractors, who hail mainly from the middle and upper class. Analysts say Chávez will have to find a way to work with the sizeable opposition movement.

He propelled himself to victory on Sunday largely by instituting a series of "missions" that ranged from teaching at least a million illiterate Venezuelans to read and write, to dispatching Cuban doctors to slums where few Venezuelan doctors would dare tread, much less work and live in, according to Lander and other analysts. The programs are wildly popular, and toward the end of the recall campaign even the opposition reversed course and said they would maintain the missions if Chávez was ousted.

Still, the major question remained of how the opposition will react to Chávez's victory. Some Venezuelans feared the opposition would refuse to accept the results and launch renewed efforts to destabilize or overthrow the government. The opposition launched a failed coup attempt against Chávez in April 2002 and an illegal two-month strike in December 2002 that shut down the country's massive oil industry and devastated the economy.

Former President Carlos Andres Perez recently said Chávez should "die like a dog" and that a two- to three-year dictatorship would be needed after removing the president. Most opposition leaders publicly distanced themselves from the comments.

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday who worked in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, mainly as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2004

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