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Chavez and Moral Legitimacy

Article by Brendan Miniter July 7, 2011 //   3 minute read

Even Hugo Chavez needs the support of the people in order to rule. That’s one way to read the Venezuela president’s dramatic return to Caracas on Monday. After disappearing into the Cuban health system and then emerging last week with a pre–recorded message announcing that he has cancer, Chavez likely knew he would need a dramatic moment in order to rally public support. So in the early morning hours, he arrived in Venezuela wearing military fatigues while promising to go on fighting for his health and his political goals. And within a short time of his arrival, supporters turned up in the streets of Caracas chanting “He’s back!” When Chavez stepped onto the balcony of the presidential palace later in the day, thousands of his allies were in the city’s main square with placards and chants and talking to reporters. The irony of this seemingly strong return is that it shows how much Chavez needs popular support. What crowds give, they can also take away. In society, political power resides with the people, who grant it to their political leaders either explicitly through elections or implicitly by tolerating a tyrant’s rule. Chavez has remained in power for more than a decade by blending explicit support with implicit support that he claims to have even as his allies have made it difficult for mass protests to be organized against him. Now the claim of implicit support could slip away. To emerge empowered by next year’s presidential election, Chavez needs public displays of affection for his leadership. He’s likely to seek those in a coming campaign he hinted at this week by saying his flight back to Venezuela is only the “beginning” of his return. But the need for such a campaign creates an opening for Venezuelan democrats, if they can take advantage of it. Each demonstration against him now puts Chavez in the position of having to prove he is popular after all. That’s a tall order at time when the oil rich nation’s economy is floundering.