In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez won re-election by a wide margin on Sunday, securing a third six-year term in office. With most of the ballots counted, Chavez had won over 60 percent of the vote, more than 20 points over rival Manuel Rosales. We go to Caracas to get a report. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez won re-election by a wide margin Sunday, securing a third six-year term in office. With most of the ballots counted, Chavez had won over 60 percent of the vote, more than 20 points over rival Manuel Rosales. Minutes after the results were announced, Chavez appeared on the balcony of his presidential palace in Caracas singing the national anthem. He told cheering supporters his "Bolivarian revolution" had triumphed, and vowed to boost social programs that have won him support among Venezuela’s poor. Chavez also mocked President Bush, calling his re-election "another defeat for the empire of Mr. Danger." And he sent out a "brotherly" salute to Cuban President Fidel Castro. Challenger Manuel Rosales later conceded defeat but vowed to remain in opposition. Sunday’s election saw a high turnout, and the poll was monitored by hundreds of international observers.
We go now to Caracas to speak with Greg Wilpert, a journalist and sociologist living in Venezuela. He is the author of the new book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government. He’s also the editor of the website www.venezuelanalysis.com. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: Hi. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, describe the election and the response to it.
GREG WILPERT: Well, it was pretty — almost an anticlimax, in the sense that the polls had predicted that Chavez would win the election. But still, the big question was exactly how the opposition would react, and that was the real big surprise, because a lot of people here predicted that the opposition would reject the result, and it turns out Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate, gave a fairly conciliatory concession speech late last night after Chavez’s speech. And I think that was the real big surprise, and it also shows that Venezuela is really heading more on a road towards a more normal society, where politics is fought in electoral campaigns instead of on the street.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the polls? Some showed a vast advantage for Chavez, that he was going to win, but there were other polls, particularly a U.S. polling firm, that talked about a dead heat to the end.
GREG WILPERT: Yes, that was quite odd. There was the U.S. polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland, which had worked for Clinton in the past and actually has a track record of doing suspicious polls around the world, predicted a dead heat. And actually, luckily, nobody really gave that poll much credence, because it was so far off from what the other polls were saying. And not only that, Penn, Schoen & Berland actually, a couple years ago for the recall referendum, had predicted that Chavez would lose the recall referendum, which he didn’t. He won in the end with 60 percent of the vote, so they had no credibility here in Venezuela, and it seems like an attempt, a cheap attempt, to cast doubt on the electoral results on Sunday.
AMY GOODMAN: Greg Wilpert, can you talk about Chavez’s policies at home, taking the multibillion-dollar programs for the poor, funding them with oil money?
GREG WILPERT: Yes. He has introduced many — some new social programs in Venezuela, such as subsidizing food for people in the poor communities, creating community health clinics, introducing many, many different educational programs for high school completion and for university scholarships, is launching something like over 50 new universities. I mean, it’s just a tremendous spending spree, so to speak, you could say, from the oil money that has been coming in now, ever since the price of oil has been so high. But actually, people generally say that that’s the reason Chavez is so popular, and I think that’s an important reason. But the other reason actually, I think, has to do with the introduction of what they’re calling participatory democracy in Venezuela, efforts to get people in the communities to participate and giving them a voice in local government and in helping fix their own communities.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Greg Wilpert in Caracas. President Chavez says that he is going to convene a commission, once he had won again, to propose constitutional reforms, among them to remove term limits. This would be the last time he could run again, in 2012, the next election.
GREG WILPERT: Yes. This is actually something that I think a lot of people are rather skeptical about. That is, there’s no real consensus, and Chavez himself in the past actually said he would not do such a thing and only has recently said that he’s thinking about removing these term limits. I’m not sure exactly how that will fare, as people in Venezuela — I think there’s a large segment of people who support him who are aware of Latin America’s rather bad history with personalistic rulers, and that would not help in terms of lowering the dependency of Chavez’s project on a Chavez the person. So I’m not sure if this will really pass. I’m kind of secretly hoping, actually, that people around him will convince him not to do this. He’s adjusted it several times. I’m not completely sure it will actually go through.
AMY GOODMAN: And overall, U.S. policy towards Hugo Chavez, from the attempted coup in 2002 — where the U.S. is putting its resources and what this means for the United States government, for the Bush administration now?
GREG WILPERT: Sorry, the line was breaking up. I’m not sure — I think you were asking about how the Bush administration has been supporting the opposition here in Venezuela?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, just wondering from 2002 and the U.S. involvement with the coup then, what evidence there was for it then, to what’s happened now, to the election by a wide margin of President Chavez.
GREG WILPERT: Well, every year the Bush administration has been spending more money, in terms of supporting opposition groups here in Venezuela. I think this year the number has reached over $10 million, at least in terms of the overt funding that we know of through Freedom of Information Act requests. Actually, the actual number is probably even much higher than that.
However, it seems to have had little impact in terms of really supporting the opposition. And the reason is, the opposition here has been so ineffective, because they’ve followed always the direction of the most radical elements. And I think now with the concession, which is really the first time they’ve conceded an election since Chavez’s first win back eight years ago in 1998, with their concession they, so to speak, are on the path of participating in the game, and therefore are, I think, bringing back people who were alienated by their radical politics.
AMY GOODMAN: How much concern is there that there would be another coup? A navy captain arrested last week, a high-ranking military official saying the arrested man was about to deliver to opponents of Chavez a list of officers disposed to help topple the government.
GREG WILPERT: Sorry, I only understood about half of what you were asking, but I think you were asking about the military. The military — there’s a lot of concern, actually, about whether there might be some opposition groups planning disturbances and claiming fraud. Actually there were posters found that already had said that there was a fraud and that there would be a demonstrated organized for Tuesday, but those were captured before they could be released. And so, I’m not sure exactly where — I mean, I don’t think that much will come out of it. There was also a lot of talk about perhaps calling on the military to resist Chavez and so on. None of those things have any chance of surviving, especially now that the mainstream opposition has given the concession. It is very doubtful that anybody here will try something funny or illegal.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Greg Wilpert, as the election of Chavez took place in Venezuela, the 80th birthday celebration of Fidel Castro in Cuba took place without Fidel Castro showing up. He is very sick. What about their relationship? What did Chavez say about Castro this weekend?
GREG WILPERT: Well, Chavez dedicated his electoral victory to Castro and to Cuba, actually. He said that this was dedicated to Cuba. And so, certainly, of course, the ties to Castro and to Cuba are very, very close, and the opposition here has always tried to exploit that, saying that this proves that Chavez is interested in turning Venezuela into a Castro communist society, and so on. But every time that is mentioned — for example, several interviews that Chavez did before the election — he has always denied this very strongly. He said all we have is a strong friendship, but we have absolutely no intention of copying the Cuban model, but we are interested in finding our own path toward a democratic socialism. And that’s what Chavez has repeatedly said. And I think people believe him. I mean, that’s why he got re-elected.
AMY GOODMAN: Greg Wilpert, I want to thank you for being with us. Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, we’ll look at the weekend’s events in Havana. Greg Wilpert is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government.