For Chavez, the Worst May Be Yet to Come

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Puccini's masterwork Tosca begins with the phrase "Ah, at last!" These words are logically expected to be heard at a later stage, say, at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning of an opera or a play. And yet, what follows in that opera validates fully the choice of the composer: Angelotti, the character who pronounces the sentence, believes at that early moment that his fears are, at last, left behind. ... He didn't know at that point that the worst was still to come for him and his friends.

A similar scenario may well be in place in Venezuela, this time not in the fictional domain of lyrics but in the crude realm of politics.

Hugo Chávez has managed to win a third mandate with a relatively comfortable margin (though much lower than in previous presidential elections): 55.15 percent of total votes, against 44.25 percent for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles. Chávez and his followers may thus be inclined to think - like Angelotti in Tosca - that the worst, an electoral defeat, lies behind and, therefore, that they can continue ruling Venezuela in the same manner as they have done so far: by harassing the media and the opposition, transforming the armed forces and the judiciary into instruments of a partisan project, shrinking the role of the private sector in the economy and devoting the rent derived from oil exports to the financing of vote-catching programs and foreign buddies, in detriment to the indispensable maintenance and badly-needed modernization of the oil industry.

Continuing in that path, however, may prove to be a recipe for failure.

Indeed, the election campaign has changed for good Venezuela's political equation. Hugo Chávez will henceforth have to deal with a well-structured opposition that has found an able and unifying candidate. Mr. Capriles both managed to secure nearly one-half of the votes - not so bad, given Chávez's command and manipulation of the State purses and the country airwaves - and showed an exemplary civism by acknowledging defeat and congratulating the winner just minutes after the first official results were known. (Not sure that Mr. Chávez would have behaved in a similar, dignifying manner.)

After Mr. Capriles' impressive performance, and his fair play in the evening of the presidential election, it will be more counterproductive than ever for Chávez and his followers to keep demonizing the opposition, accusing it of being "lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the Imperio (read: the U.S.)." Chavismo will be well advised to seriously take into account that opposition and recognize the place it has won in Venezuela's political chessboard.

Furthermore, during the election campaign, Chávez had to admit - if only to entice voters - that many things aren't working in Venezuela and, accordingly, that he needs to "improve" (obviously a euphemism) the manner he rules the country. Double-digit inflation, frequent electricity blackouts, ramshackle public infrastructure and frightening crime rate figure among the endemic curses of Chavismo that are poisoning the everyday life of Venezuelans. And now that Chávez has acknowledged the existence of those ills - which are largely of his own making - Venezuela's public opinion expects deeds, not mere words or vacuous promises. Hugo Chávez is thus compelled to deliver the goods.

No less important: Chavez's succession is likely to become the bone of contention at the summit of power in Venezuela.

The hitherto minister for foreign affairs, Nicolas Maduro, has just been appointed by Chávez vice-president of Venezuela. It is far from sure, however, that this heir apparent will be able to assert his authority among his peers. Chavismo is composed of figures that the leader shifts fancily from one function to the other and whose political life and survival depends entirely on him. Under such circumstances, it is difficult for whoever depends on the caprices of a leader to command the respect of his or her colleagues. Moreover, Chávez has the constitutional power to remove his vice-president if and when he deems suitable to do so.

The appointment of the heir apparent - however ephemeral that appointment may be - is bound to create disillusionments and frustrations among the sacred cows of Chavismo. The fragmentation of the movement, if not its implosion, cannot, therefore, be ruled out. Some may even feel tempted to cross the Rubicon and join the opposition, which, after its impressive performance in the recent presidential elections, offers a political alternative with real chances to eventually assume power - as long, of course, as Chávez doesn't kill democracy altogether.

For all these reasons, even though Chavismo may think his leader's electoral victory has put the dangers behind, the truth is that, like at the outset of Puccini's Tosca, the drama of power is about to begin in the political tragicomedy mounted by Hugo Chávez.

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