Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez certainly likes to put on a show.
Only days after his ruling socialist party suffered major losses in regional elections Sunday, he is hosting Russian President Dimitry Medvedev today on a state visit. Just to add to the occasion, part of Russia's Northern Fleet dropped anchor off the Venezuelan coast Tuesday, led by its flagship, Peter the Great.
But the show of Russian naval power can't obscure the impact of Sunday's election results on Chavez's long-term political ambitions. While Chavez's party was able to hang on to 17 of the 22 governorships, opposition candidates won five states, including the three most populous in the country. The opposition also pulled off a major surprise, defeating a top Chavez loyalist to win the metropolitan district of Caracas. The capital's biggest slum, Petare, even went to the opposition.
The lesson is clear.
While Chavez remains popular — his party won 55 percent of the vote nationwide — discontent over crime, inflation and poor public services has eaten away at his urban support. That could spell doom for Chavez's bigger political goal: presidential re-election in 2012.
Chavez, 54, has held power since 1999, but term limits bar him from running again. Last year he narrowly lost a referendum to reform the constitution and abolish term limits altogether. He desperately wants another try and has spoken of staying in power until 2021.
"Why if a president is good does he have to leave office?" Chavez said Monday, in a rambling news conference analyzing the election results.
The falling oil prices also threaten to weaken Chavez's regional influence, which relies on financial largesse bestowed on Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
To be sure, Chavez will use the brief visit of Medvedev and his warships to puff his chest. But Chavez can't hide the real reason Russia's Northern Fleet has ventured to these warm, southerly waters for the first time since the Cold war.
Rather than a show of solidarity with Chavez, the appearance of four Russian vessels is more about hurt feelings in Moscow than anything else. Moscow is upset over Washington's decision to send warships into the Black Sea in response to Russia's violent clash with Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Medvedev has lately softened his tone, saying he hopes to improve ties with Washington. Indeed, Kremlin officials now say the Venezuela visit has no political significance except expanding trade with Latin America.
There is some legitimate basis for that. Medvedev is on a tour of Latin America, with stops in Brazil, Cuba and Peru for a meeting earlier this week of Pacific Rim nations, the APEC summit, attended by President Bush.
Analysts say the Kremlin has little time for Chavez's socialist rants. But Russia does see some financial reward in closer ties with a fellow oil producer. The two countries are discussing joint oil and gas ventures. Russia is also a major arms supplier to Venezuela, with contracts worth $4.4-billion.
Moscow is eyeing offshore oil exploration in Cuba too, as well as joint ventures in Brazil.
"A point has been made, the timing and the tool used for the exercise was probably unnecessary — and maybe even counterproductive," says Pedro Burelli, a former director of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, PdVSA. "But Russia now has to focus on keeping its economy alive in very rough market conditions. Saber rattling requires access to global markets as it was global markets that gave Russia its saber back."
Time will tell whether Chavez's electoral setback forces him to tone down some of the virulently anti-U.S. rhetoric for which he has become so famous.
But for now at least, Chavez's saber seems to have lost some of its menace.
Contact David Adams at email@example.com.