Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s lead has narrowed, the latest polls suggest, as his opposition rival charged that the incumbent’s abuse of state resources for electoral purposes and lack of personal contact with voters will come at a cost at the October 7 vote.
The headquarters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski (right) is reminiscent of the campaign against Chile’s military dictator a quarter-century ago, says a veteran democracy activist.
“Excitement, anxious young faces, the sense of a nation’s best and brightest coming together for a noble cause: the scene was an office building in Caracas, Venezuela, in July 2012….. But, to a Chilean like me, it could have been Santiago in October 1988,” writes Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile:
The campaign headquarters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles feels and looks a lot like the headquarters of the “No” campaign against Chile’s military dictator of a quarter-century ago, Augusto Pinochet. Back then, very few people outside Chile thought that a ruthless dictator could be removed through the ballot box. ….Today, many in the global chattering classes are similarly skeptical that Venezuela’s political opposition can unseat the demagogic populist Hugo Chávez in the country’s presidential election on October 7. …..But the buzz in Caracas suggests otherwise.
Chávez’s lead has narrowed in the latest poll from Caracas-based Datanalisis seven weeks before the poll.
The sitting president had 46.8 percent support compared with 34.2 percent for Capriles, indicating that his lead fell to 12.5 points from 15.3 percentage points, with 18.8 percent of respondents undecided.
In an interview with Reuters, Capriles “contrasted Chávez’s reliance on TV appearances with his own tireless crisscrossing of the country and said the president’s use of public funds made it a David versus Goliath election clash.”
“I don’t expect a photo finish. We’re going to have a resounding victory,” he said. “Physical presence beats posters.”
The opposition believes many Venezuelans, intimidated by Chávez’s authoritarian style and past reprisals in the job market against those who have voted against him, may be hiding their true intentions…….The opposition coalition, which groups about 30 parties and organizations from across the political spectrum, is angry at Chávez’s use of lengthy TV addresses — which all local channels must broadcast — and what they allege is the plundering of state cash and equipment for his campaign.
“All the abuse, the use of public resources, the advantages he has, and the sense of ‘I am the official candidate who believes himself above Venezuelans and sees himself equal to God,’ I think that has a cost,” Capriles said. “And on October 7 we will see the cost of this abuse, in the defeat that the government has coming.”
Chavez’s election platform makes it clear that the authoritarian populist plans to “convert Venezuelan society into a state-controlled commune, and the state, into a military-controlled body,” writes Javier Corrales, professor of political science at Amherst College and a member of the editorial board of Americas Quarterly:
The platform is contained in a 39-page document entitled, “Proposal from the Fatherland’s Candidate, Commander Hugo Chávez.” ….The military is explicitly mentioned in at least 23 paragraphs. The military is called upon not only to safeguard the borders, but also to be present in “all the structures of the Venezuelan state” (emphasis added). Chávez wants not only to increase military spending (already one of the largest in the Americas), but also to “fortify and increase” the military’s intelligence and counterintelligence services.
In fact, the document is emphatic about strengthening intelligence. Chávez calls for the actual “massification” of efforts to “search for information that is useful to protect the country.” This can only mean one thing: turn ordinary citizens into informants for state security. Chávez also wants to increase the number of “patriots” joining the Bolivarian militia—a paramilitary force directly under Chávez’ command (rather than under the command of official generals). All of this is needed to produce a “point of no return” in the effort to “pulverize completely the bourgeois state.”
“No democratically elected government in the Americas has ever been this enamored with the military,” says Corrales, whose co-authored book, U.S.-Venezuela Relations, will be published later this year. “Certainly, no democracy has called for such a militarization of the state.”
In its place, he wants to create 39,000 communal councils. …..Nothing is said about how these councils will be selected. There is no mention of democracy or elections in the more than 30 paragraphs dedicated to this topic. All that we are told is that these councils will be given the “administrative competencies” currently assigned to governors, mayors and municipal bodies. They will have “all control” over policy implementation. Furthermore, the government plans to create a body of 4,500 “inspectors,” trained “socio-politically” (not just technically) to oversee these councils.
These two sets of proposals amount to “nothing less than a call for the pyramidization of Venezuelan society under state tutelage, and the re-orientation of the state under greater military command,” Corrales writes in Americas Quarterly.
It is an affront not just to federalism but to pluralism and the checks and balances of modern-day government. It’s as if the totalitarianism that we thought got buried in the Twentieth Century is planning a comeback in a country that is 3-hour flight from Miami and one of the United States’ key oil supplier…..Chávez has a pretty good track record of delivering on what he promises regarding state-society relations. In the 1998 election, Chávez promised to end the party system, and he did. In the 2000 elections, he promised to expand state control over oil, and he did.
“In the 2006 he promised to accelerate nationalizations, and he did. There is no reason to doubt him this time,” Corrales concludes.
“With little access to media, the Capriles camp has been forced into an old-fashioned campaign mode,” writes Velasco, a visiting professor at Columbia University:
Capriles has positioned himself politically far away not only from Mr. Chávez, but also from the business elite and the traditional parties that ran Venezuela before Mr. Chávez. His center-left message emphasizes two issues: jobs and crime. ….
The official unemployment rate today is 7.9%, but youth unemployment and underemployment are much higher. ….Venezuela’s murder rate — at 67 per 100,000 people — is among the world’s highest, and five times what it was before Mr. Chávez came to power. By contrast, the murder rate in Brazil is 26 per 100,000, and “only” 18 in Mexico, despite all of that country’s drug-related violence.
“Venezuelans deserve better than this. And they may get it if Mr. Capriles can unseat Mr. Chávez in October,” Velasco suggests.
“He faces an uphill battle. But so did the democratic forces battling Pinochet.”