Venezuelans will go to the polls for the 12th time in as many years. Who will come out on top?
On October 7th Venezuelans will go to the polls for the 12th time in as many years. This time President Hugo Chavez is asking the people to extend his mandate in Miraflores to 19 years; a stunning amount of time. General Pinochet’s regime in Chile lasted seventeen years. Alberto Fujimori lasted just over ten years. Colonel Marcos Perez Jimenez lasted only nine years. A win would make place Chavez in the dubious company of dictators such as Mobutu, Mugabe, Trujillo, the Somoza family and of course the Castros.
It would seem counter-intuitive that the Venezuelan people would voluntarily give a leader such a large portion of their lives; but Hugo Chavez is not your daddy’s dictator. Sitting atop an atrophied and chaotic administration with rates of violence paralleling Medellin in the 80s and an inflation rate which has led Venezuela to Heritage Foundation’s coveted “worst economy in the world” status, even the opposition pollsters agree that he still has close to 50 percent voter intention and a personal popularity significantly north of that.
His numbers are buoyed by a personal narrative that connects him more closely than any other president to the poor (except perhaps Romulo Betancourt – 45 to 48 and 59 to 64). His masterful cult of personality and use of state propaganda has given him a role at the epicenter of Venezuelan political life for a decade (one time an opposition party leader mentioned his name 34 times in a five minute speech).
But, and perhaps most importantly, Chavez has been the beneficiary of a decade long oil boom that has netted the country close to 1 trillion dollars (over the past 7 years Chavez has had discretionary use of a $100 billion fund to purchase votes). Venezuela’s current political landscape is about patronage and identity politics at is most vulgar.
Into this scenario walks Henrique Capriles Radonski, the young, energetic governor of Miranda state. Capriles is everything Chavez is not. This is both a strength and a weakness.
Known only by one name – Capriles – this young governor cut his political teeth in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Beginning the same year Chavez won the presidency, Capriles in 1998 was elected to the National Assembly and became the youngest person elected as president of the chamber. He served from 2000 to 2008 as mayor ofBaruta, one of the municipalities of greater Caracas. And since 2008 he’s served as the governor of Miranda, the second most populous state in Venezuela (and home to ½ of Caracas).
While Chavez has deep military ties and imposed his vision on Venezuela from the top down, Capriles has his roots in the institutions of Venezuela’s destroyed democracy and has started from the bottom. While Chavez is from the popular classes, Capriles is from a wealthy business family. Chavez is a prolific talker; Capriles is known for his ability to get things done. Chavez is old, overweight and sick; Capriles is 40 years old and a marathon runner.Capriles has never lost an election; Chavez has lost (in numerical terms) three out of the last four.
Just as the candidates are a contrast, this election is about very different visions of a country. President Chavez offers the people a watered down, chaotic version of communism. “Socialism of the 21st Century” is a statist, authoritarian approach to the satisfaction of what he calls “the basic needs of the permanent majority.” Chavez plan of government sees 68 percent of the population in communes by 2019.
Capriles wants a restoration of multi-party representative democracy; where the economy is based on entrepreneurship but with a robust social safety net. For true classical liberals who want to see a real reduction in the role of the state, Capriles’ package does not go far enough. But too often real changes in mentality of this type must come from think tanks and the private sector which, under Chavez’s rule, simply will not survive.
To be sure, winning this election is about much more than the voting booth. Chavez has been using the omnipotent arm of his state to try and sway the results in his favor. This has included increasing handouts, manipulating the electoral registry, threatening government workers that their votes are not secret, reducing Capriles’ ability to campaign through regulations and outright violence, closing the Venezuelan consulate in Miami (defrauding many thousands of their votes), and finally threats of violence and instability if he were to lose.
This threat is not empty, with Chavez’s nod of approval a powerful drug cartel has set up in Venezuela, using the assets of the military and the national geography to move more than 30 percent of the world’s cocaine. This cartel, called the Cartel of the Suns, will likely not take defeat lying down.
Chavez’s other nefarious relationships have much to lose as well: Cuba’s economy depends on Venezuela, FARCneeds Venezuela to survive, Iran relies on Venezuela for support, Russia sells weapons and China is looking at Venezuela as a long term energy asset. These are global power struggles into which Chavez has inserted his small Caribbean country.
But, as in all elections, on October 7th these powerful interests will run headlong into the Venezuelan people. In the modern world, it is virtually impossible to pull off an electoral fraud of more than 5 percent undetected. Case in point,Fujimori in Peru, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Ortega in Nicaragua, Ahmadinejad in Iran, and Putin in Russia, and the list goes on.
While through sheer coercive force these leaders often do not hand over power – at least they are at long last exposed for who they are and the legitimacy they are so desperate for is transferred to their opponent (think AungSan Suu Kyi in Burma). This is what Chavez is so worried about. Should Capriles win clearly, he would have to make difficult decisions as he attempts to hold together a fraying coalition of the immoral.
Since he is dying of cancer and his longevity is not assured, he has lost his ability to play even that card.
Things are at their worst for the aging caudillo.
Joel D. Hirst is a Principal at the Cordoba Group Interational, a strategic consulting and management firm in Washington D.C. Hirst has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and is an expert in democracy, foreign policy and governance. Hirst tweets @joelhirst
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