Chavez's victory: A U.S. antagonist stays popular with Venezuelans

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez won re-election Sunday, disappointing the U.S. government, which hasn't yet arrived at a working relationship with him during his 14 years in power.

Mr. Chavez, 58, secured his fourth term by nearly 10 percentage points. If he continues to survive the cancer that he has been fighting, he will serve another six years, through 2018. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, 40, was a former governor of the state of Miranda. The elections appear to have been relatively fair, and Mr. Capriles conceded defeat.

There will be uncertainty if Mr. Chavez's health problems claim his life. If he leaves office during the first four years of his term, there will be new elections. If he were to leave office during the last two years, according to the Venezuelan constitution, the vice president will succeed him. The problem is that, as of now, Mr. Chavez has not named a vice president. He should.

He was re-elected largely on the basis of two policies. The first is a vigorous socialism, under which Venezuela's considerable oil wealth has been redistributed to many of its poor, in the form of housing, health care, education and other social services. The second is a position of some leadership among Latin American countries, particularly the strain of thought that opposes what it considers to be a U.S. tendency toward trying to impose a hegemony south of the border. One element of this second pole of Mr. Chavez's approach is to provide cheap oil to Cuba, a policy bound to get under the skin of some in Washington.

Venezuela's problems under Mr. Chavez have included high inflation, inefficient oil production and a high crime rate, plus his heavy-handed rule and politicization of governance at all levels.

After a failed attempt to get rid of him through what turned out to be premature support of a coup d'etat in 2002, the United States lapsed into an approach that parallels its policy toward Cuba -- wait for its leaders, in the case of Cuba, the Castros, to die and hope for the best.

It is impossible for the United States to ignore Mr. Chavez and Venezuela, given its position as America's fourth-largest foreign oil supplier and given its leadership role in Latin America. Neither of those elements, however, has been enough to spur reasonable relations with Venezuela under three U.S. presidents.



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