A group of eminent persons today expressed concern about the “precarious state of affairs” in Venezuela and called on the international community to “remain firm and persistent” in demanding a free and fair election in next month’s standoff which pits incumbent Hugo Chávez against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles (left).
“The situation in the country is marked by a high degree of uncertainty, because no one knows to what lengths Chávez might go to retain his grip on power,” says the group,* which includes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, former German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, French philosopher André Glucksmann and Roman Catholic theologian Michael Novak.
“What is clear is that the regime appears increasingly determined to ensure its survival by any means necessary,” say the signatories,* members of the Prague-based Shared Concern Initiative. “Chávez has all the normal advantages of incumbency, but can also be expected to use every available administrative resource at his disposal to ensure re-election.”
In the run up to the poll, there is one question at the forefront of everyone’s mind: does Hugo Chávez still have it? writes Francisco Toro:
By “it”, I mean his legendary, intense, emotional connection with the poor – a kind of attachment that has, for many, a feeling of religious fervor. Of faith. “Chávez is the only one who has ever really cared about the poor” – you hear his supporters say again and again.
But 14 years on, as even his most hardcore supporters acknowledge, Chávez’s experiment in 21st-century socialism isn’t really working. After the chaotic nationalization of most of the agro-industrial chain –, food shortages have become chronic…. Lines at subsidized government grocery shops are long, and particularly scarce commodities sell out almost the second they’re delivered.
The steel and cement industries can’t produce enough to meet the country’s housing needs; electric utilities have brought chronic blackouts throughout the country; and the phone company has failed to deliver adequate internet access. Venezuelans like to joke that Julian Assange passed over Venezuela for political asylum simply because the internet is so slow there.
Analysts say a strong turnout by disenchanted ex-Chávistas could tip the balance in favor of Capriles, AP reports:
The impression has grown that the president has become too enamored of his own global legacy while neglecting basic needs at home such as infrastructure and public safety. Chávez’s election manifesto of proposals for his next six-year term trumpets abstract ideas such as “preserving life on the planet and helping to save mankind,” a “new international geopolitics” and “a continuation of the 21st century socialism.”
“The votes of those who have changed sides are key in this race because without them, it would be impossible for Capriles to win,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis.
Capriles has “edged closer” to Chávez, according to recent polls, but still lags behind the incumbent in the run-up to the October 7 poll.
“It has taken Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition movement 14 years to decode Chávez’s intoxicating appeal and formulate a compelling alternative,” writes Toro, editor of the Caracas Chronicles blog:
Capriles can’t match Chávez for charisma, and doesn’t try to. But after 14 years of deepening economic dysfunction, administrative chaos and dependence on oil, he has sensed an opening for a no-nonsense campaign centered on institutionalizing the revolution’s social advances while sweeping away its legacy of political sectarianism, ideological rigidity and mismanagement.
“Never again should you have to show a Socialist party membership card to access a social programme,” Capriles says in his stump speech, invariably bringing the house down. The line hits home because every person in the audience knows someone who has been shut out of access to the latest oil bonanza for ideological deviance.
Chávez has insisted that buffalos will pass through the eye of a needle before he gives up power.
So what if he loses? The Economist asks:
He said earlier this month that a Capriles victory would lead to a “profound destabilization” of Venezuela, which might even cause “civil war”. The opposition worries that the army might back the president if he decided not to recognize defeat. In 2010 General Henry Rangel Silva, now the defense minister, said the armed forces were “wedded” to Mr Chávez’s socialist project and would find it “difficult” to accept a change of government, though he later qualified these comments. The president himself often says the army is Chávista.
Even if the army is not Chávista, though, most state institutions are. They will pose daunting problems to Mr Capriles if he wins. Should Mr Chávez win, he will try to use their power to make his “revolution” irreversible. But he is likely to find that power harder to wield in a country that is showing itself to be a lot more evenly divided than in the past.
*Frederik Willem de Klerk was President of South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. André Glucksmann is a philosopher and essayist. Vartan Gregorian is President of Carnegie Corporation. Michael Novak is a Roman Catholic theologian [and former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy]. Yohei Sasakawa is President of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Richard von Weizsäcker was President of Germany. Grigory Yavlinsky is Chairman of the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko. They are all members of the Prague-based Shared Concern Initiative.