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A deflated return

October 12, 2012 12:10 am


Hugo Ch^BENT^00E1^EENT^vez

WORN DOWN by cancer treatments, deprived of his overwhelming electoral majority, Hugo Chávez will limp into another term as president of Venezuela.

The shameless rabble-rouser of the left, depleted physically and politically, will have less power to nationalize the economy and to repress the independent media. Rather than the leader of a worldwide populist revolution in the company of such U.S. antagonists as Iran, Russia, and Belarus, Mr. Chávez seems more and more to be a fading relic of a radical populism sunk by the polarizing demagogy of its ailing leader. Brazil, not Venezuela, has emerged as the economic and political superpower of the continent.

Yet the United States and the rest of the world would be unwise to shove Mr. Chávez to the sidelines. His continuing leadership of a nation of 29 million, with the world's largest oil reserves, will still have a major impact on the future of Latin America and on America's role in that often neglected but critically important part of the world.

A showman with a flair for the dramatic, Mr. Chávez has often overplayed his hand--witness his Socialist Party's mismanagement of the country's oil wealth, his bullying of the democratic opposition, and his failure to curb the escalating problem of violence on the streets and in neighborhoods. The strong showing in Sunday's presidential race by Henrique Capriles, a centrist state governor, was a testament to those disappointments.

But Mr. Chávez still commands the passionate support of millions who view him as a champion of the poor. Indeed, the United States has only grudgingly acknowledged the significant improvements his 14 years in power have brought to the impoverished. Health care is more accessible. Poverty has decreased.

Those accomplishments, though tainted by Mr. Chávez's autocratic tendencies, stand in contrast with the records of some of the right-wing regimes long supported by the West before his assent. Indeed, much of his success can be attributed to the West's failure to support an alternative that would address the widening economic gap. Mr. Capriles' candidacy has helped to make amends for that sorry record.

Mr. Chávez may have lost his ticket to the center stage of world politics. But even as a sideshow, he continues to demonstrate the loss of U.S. influence in Latin America and the need to continue to support reasonable options that offer hope for social progress.

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