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Weakened Hugo Chavez still not likely to mellow

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WASHINGTON -- When I met Henrique Capriles in 2009, he was already being touted as the man most likely to challenge Hugo Chavez in the 2012 presidential elections.

You could quickly understand why. Even though the refurbished elementary school holding the rally on that Sunday afternoon was in Chavez territory, Capriles' arrival was met with the cheers, screams and dancing that you'd expect for a rock star, not a governor. The charismatic young opposition leader felt comfortable in his skin and his informal style exuded confidence. Though he was three years from that presidential race, he already knew how to deliver the lines that made Venezuelans from this hardscrabble corner of the countryside roar.

Capriles opened by recounting a story of a worker who had recently told him that, "I love Chavez, but I love you, too." Capriles explained that was OK. "Sometimes a man falls in love with two or three women or a woman falls in love with two or three men. It's all right -- it's part of life."

The crowd swooned.

But on Sunday there still wasn't enough love for the handsome 40-year-old governor. Hugo Chavez won his fourth bid for Miraflores, the presidential palace, with 54 per cent of the vote to Capriles' 45 per cent. Capriles did make inroads. Chavez, for example, only added 135,000 votes from his 2006 election total, while the opposition won nearly 1.9 million more votes than last time.

The question now is this: How will Chavez interpret his victory? What will he seek to do with another six years in power -- or however much time he has before his health fails him?

It would be nice to imagine that losing nearly half the country would moderate this modern-day caudillo. That in his weakened positioned -- both physically and politically -- Chavez would seek to reconcile with the more than six million Venezuelans who feel betrayed by the last 14 years.

That is not going to happen. Chavez doesn't want to tamp down Venezuela's polarized politics. He thrives in it. Although he comes to power through elections, he doesn't rule through democratic means. He has never proposed to govern through accommodation and negotiation.

Rather, he starts with the answer -- 21st-century revolution -- and batters anyone who stands in his way. The fact that Chavez now finds himself leading roughly half of Venezuela against the other half of Venezuela isn't a problem for him -- it's more fuel for his fire.

As Gen. Raul Baduel, Chavez's former friend and defence minister, told me from his jail cell in 2010, "His specialty is tanks and armoured vehicles. That is the type of weaponry he knows... The concept is to roll over your adversaries, to flatten them. That's his approach, to flatten his enemies."

It was in the wake of his last presidential election in 2006 that Chavez began to truly radicalize his agenda. Soon after that victory, he targeted Radio Caracas Television. It was the oldest television station in Venezuela and home to some of the public's favorite Latin soap operas.

But it was also critical of the president. Chavez announced that he would force it off the airwaves. Polls indicated that 65 per cent to 80 per cent of the country was against the station's closure. Chavez wasn't bothered. He moved ahead.

When his 2007 referendum to grant himself enormous powers was blocked by the opposition -- his only real electoral loss -- Chavez merely pivoted. In short order, he has seized all those powers through presidential edicts or legislation forced through a rubber-stamp National Assembly. Chavez isn't interested in reconciliation.

And there is little reason to expect he won't ratchet up the pressure again. Although he wants to be president for life, Chavez's likely life expectancy is now a secret between him and his Cuban doctors. Many members of the opposition expect nothing short of a full frontal assault after this newest election.

Will Chavez resort to political bans, barring some from standing for office? Will selective corruption investigations be launched against people in the private sector who were too vocal in their support of the opposition? Will there be another wave of nationalizations as the president's administration looks for new resources to keep Chavez Inc. afloat? Will Globovision -- the only station still sometimes critical of the president -- be the next to draw his fire? In a regime that rules through so much uncertainty, no one can say if he will dust off his old playbook or resort to something new. What is certain is that Chavez will need these and other political controversies to distract the public and keep the country's politics polarized.

Maybe as Chavez gets closer to meeting Marx he will mellow. It's possible. The only trouble is that there is nothing in his history to suggest it. He is only becoming more dependent on these authoritarian tactics, not less so. The truth is Venezuela will probably have to get much worse before it can get better.


William Dobson is Slate's politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2012 A11

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