By Robert Valencia
In less than two weeks, Venezuelans will go to the polls to decide whether incumbent Hugo Chávez or challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski will occupy the presidential office at the Miraflores Palace until 2019. Amid uncertainty about Chávez’s health after a cancer scare last year and a host of social and economic issues that continue to plague Venezuela, the October 7 election is expected to be the strongest challenge to Chávez’s reign since he took power in 1999. Whether Chávez will even allow the election to unfold fairly is still an open question. But even if he does not, Chávez’s ruling mandate is not what it used to be, and his redistribution efforts and grandstanding alone are becoming less effective in the face of persistent angst about where Venezuela is headed. The truth of the matter is, regardless of who clinches the presidency, it will have the gargantuan task of getting Venezuela out of its shambles and doing so will require more than a six year term—maybe even decades.
Supported by the Gran Polo Patriótico party, Hugo Chávez’s political platform will be, as usual, a populist one. Chávez remains popular among the low-income and rural populations, and the latest polls showed Chávez’s popularity among them is high: 63.1 percent. Chávez’s goal for the 2013-2019 term is to defend his Bolivarian Revolution, which, according to him, has unchained Venezuela from its bourgeoisie and “Yankee” imperialism. He promises to do this by expanding socialism and turning Venezuela into a regional and global power through the MERCOSUR trade union, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA in Spanish), and foreign support from China and Russia.
Meanwhile, Capriles’ candidacy is finally backed by the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática coalition, after an intense primary election earlier this year. Capriles, former governor of the Miranda state, seeks to appeal to younger voters and women of all social strata. Under the mantra “Hay un Camino” (“There is a road”), Capriles pledges he will make use of his power to “serve the population and not to control it.” He also vowed that his administration will respect the populations’ free will rather than foster a political process from a narcissistic approach. In doing so, he has crafted a message that does not use Chávez’s name but still underscores the questionable power Chávez exercises over the country. His campaign’s bedrock is to pursue free-market business policies and decentralization while being supported by a social plan that grants equal access to maternal and childhood care, housing, education and human development, employment, and health and social security.
Chávez believes that change for Venezuela will come from outside, that is, as a result of Venezuela’s more active role in global politics. On the other hand, Capriles pledges to make a change from the inside as he visited each corner of the country and “heeded the needs of the population.” Yet both candidates haven’t been able to address how they can accomplish their promises while Venezuelans are straddled with chronic instability and economic worries. Inflation hovers at about 24 percent—among the highest in the world—and the crime rate has peaked in the last couple of years, with 48 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants (even higher than in Mexico).
Chávez’s ace in the hole, paradoxically, is the economy. Unemployment is currently at 8 percent, down from 13 percent in 1999. Venezuela remains in Latin America’s top 10 for the Human Development Index, and the oil windfall has helped Chávez create social-oriented programs for low-income families, which helped reduce Venezuela’s poverty level from 50 to 32 percent. Many of these families will support Chávez at the polls in appreciation for his welfare regime. However, his heavy expenditures on social welfare and military artillery overshadowed other sectors that also required attention in this volatile economic period, such as public safety. The recent explosion at the Amuay Refinery on August 25 also raised questions on how invested the Chávez administration is in overhauling its infrastructure, including the state of railroads nationwide. Venezuela’s 2.8 percent growth rate looks sluggish when compared to Brazil, Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Colombia, each of which had a GDP growth average of 3 and 5 percent between 1999 and 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund. Additionally, Chávez’s blueprint for the next term includes a stimulus for small and medium businesses, yet his plan would expropriate money from national and international enterprises—particularly those relying on Spanish capital. Due to Chávez’s crackdown on private enterprise, foreign direct investment is considered almost impossible. And despite the oil boom during his tenure, Venezuela’s foreign debt has grown threefold—from $24 billion in 1999 to $88 billion in 2012—and it’s today the least competitive country in Latin America according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.
Though both plans are centered on the average Venezuelan’s well-being, the next candidate has yet to address the issue of human rights in Venezuela. In May 2012, President Chávez contemplated the possibility of withdrawing Venezuela’s participation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is run by the Organization of American States. Without the surveillance of national and international human rights bodies, serious cases of violations in Venezuelan prisons, for example, can get even worse.
As the election draws near, many people have raised skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the election process overall. Chávez has repeatedly rejected requests by Capriles for a televised debate, and the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, where hundreds of thousands of anti-Chávez Venezuelan expats planned to vote, was shuttered in January. Furthermore, there have been alleged cases of pro-Chávez cells in key regions of the country to control the election process. Many have analyzed alternate outcomes come October 7, as there’s still a statistical dead-heat race between the two candidates. Capriles Radonski has found a relative success in framing a message of social inclusion while pointing out the socioeconomic scarcities caused by Chávez’s policies. If Chávez loses but refuses to step down, it will dissipate any belief in democratic validity in Venezuela and it may jeopardize the spread of a fair “21st Century Socialism” in Latin America by way of ALBA and its allies. If he wins, it will guarantee a major role from Beijing, Moscow, and Havana in Venezuela’s destiny, as well as a second phase of Bolivarianism that seeks to disband city halls and governorships to create a communal state that will report directly to the President. If Capriles wins,it will mean Venezuela’s inclusion into MERCOSUR, which will bolster the restoration of free-market enterprise—and maybe a friendlier approach to the United States. But his administration will not represent the end of Bolivarianism in the near future, since some of pro-Chávez majors and governors still remain in power in their localities and they may pose opposition to Capriles’ policies. Either way, it is clear that anti-Chávez forces inside and outside Venezuela continue to coalesce and grow. Even if they're unable to unseat Chávez this time, they must be contended with. No matter who is elected, the two sides will still be battling over the future of Venezuela.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.
[Photo courtesy of Que comunismo!]