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Is Venezuela Ready For Change? Presidential Election Pits Populist Chavez Against Business-Friendly Governor

Hugo Chavez faces the toughest reelection fight of his political career.
 
 
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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Photo Credit: Victor Soares/ABr

 
 
 
 

With just two weeks left before the presidential election, President Hugo Chávez seemed to be back to his old self at a campaign rally Wednesday, September 19. Singing, dancing and playing bass guitar, he assured thousands of cheering Venezuelan youth in Caracas of a “perfect victory” on election day Oct. 7.

“We can not lose this battle, we are bound to succeed, to win," he said.

Until declaring his candidacy in June, Chávez, 58, and his trademark eight-hour broadcasts of Aló Presidente, his candid weekly state television program, had faded from the public eye while he underwent cancer treatments in Cuba.

The 14-year incumbent is facing the toughest reelection fight of his political career against opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the 40-year-old governor of the state of Miranda.

“I form a part of a new leadership,” Capriles shouted recently to a crowd of supporters in Táchira state.“ I believe in a country where there is employment, security and no power outages.”

Capriles is pledging a more “Brazilian-style” approach to the economy, opening up markets and ending a decade’s worth of nationalizations to tackle the country’s social ills.

Mission Victory

While Capriles has canvassed the country, outlining his plans for change, Chávez has increased government spending and expanded his signature social programs, the Bolivarian Missions.

“The opposition doesn’t reach the people,” explains Heryck Rangel, founder of the pro-government youth political party Juventud PSUV, at a recent rally. “Thanks to the revolution citizens have spaces like this,” referring to a recently renovated boulevard in the populous Caracas neighborhood of Sabana Grande.

Carlos Gonzalez Ojeda, a Caracas construction worker, attests to the improvements: “In 1998, Sabana Grande was full of homeless people, drug addicts and street venders. You would never want to walk around like now for fear of being robbed or stabbed. Chávez recuperated it.”

Bloomberg News recently reported that the Venezuelan government spent approximately $9.8 billion in August,compared to the $5.9 billion it had spend in the same period in 2011.

Most notable are the emblematic Bolivarian Missions. Since April 2011, they have been revitalized with the launching of Venezuela’s Gran Housing Mission, to remedy the country’s endemic housing shortage. Also implemented was the Gran Mission Agro Venezuela, to deal with the food production crisis, together with new missions to help the elderly and impoverished mothers.

“The biggest variable is that Chávez and his government connects [with the population] with his social policy,” says Luis Vicente Leon, president of the polling firm Datanalisis. Leon explains that Chavez’s assistance programs give the promise of hope, which is fundamental to his campaign. “The people believe that with Chávez they can get a house, and without him they can’t,” said Leon.

Such programs have cemented Chávez’s support among many poor voters while accentuating distrust of Capriles’ business-friendly proposals, which the incumbent claims will only mirror the inaction on the social front of other previous governments.

“We have a future with him,” says Ivan Baéz, a Caracas security guard, whose wife received urgently needed heart surgery at a Mission Barrio Adentro health center. Baéz adds, “He [Capriles] is only going to rob us.”

Fresh Faces

Leon explains that, alternatively, voters connect to Capriles' youth and personality as a vehicle for change.

“I don’t think than anyone deserves to spend that much time in power,” says Eduardo Moreno, a languages student at Central Venezuelan University. While Moreno agrees with certain aspects of Chávez’s ideology and his attention to the poor, he is weary of another six years with the same government.

“Some things like education have gotten better for the poor, but for many, not much has changed and it [education as a whole] is still not good enough.”

Capriles has pledged to maintain social assistance programs, or Missions, while improving their transparency and efficiency. However, his campaign has mostly centered on improving education and combating Venezuela’s soaring inflation, high crime rates and housing shortages that have left many skeptical of Chávez’s socialist revolution.

“It’s dangerous everywhere,” says Lisandro Siso, a Caracas lawyer who laments insecurity throughout Venzuela. Venezuela set a record for the number of homicides with over 19,000 people killed in 2011, according to the NGO Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

Liso adds, “We need a change.”

Radio host and political analyst Vladimir Villegas affirms that Venezuelans want change: “It’s been almost 14 years; not since the dictatorship of Juan Vincente Gómez have we had a government in power so long.”

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, currently boasts an inflation rate of over 18 percent. Many blame the rate on currency controls, increased borrowing and record government spending thanks to high oil prices.

Villegas, a former PSUV ambassador to Mexico and Brazil, believes that Chavismo, or Chavez’s self-titled brand of socialism, as a political project is ending. Noting rampant crime and economic turbulence, he adds, “People are tired of the same promises,” more missions, more assistance programs...they’re tired of Chávez.”

Close Race

The polling situation is highly variable, with many polling firms placing Chávez in the lead by a large margin. Datanalisis, a reputable survey company, had the incumbent ahead by 12 points in its last national survey, released in August.

At the same time, some recent polls, such as Consultores 21, place Chávez and Capriles in a dead heat.

“Beyond what the polls say, I think you have to consider what people are saying in the streets,” says Herbert Koneke, a political scientist at Simón Bolívar University. He believes the challenger could unseat President Chávez, given the energy and support his campaign has generated.

Howver, with two weeks left, many are still undecided or maybe afraid to voice their views for fear of retaliation from the government.

“Let the best man win,” says Guiliano di Martino, a Maracay lawyer.

Andrew Rosati is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela.

 
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