Venezuela’s authoritarian president has promised to launch the “second stage” of 21st century socialism if he is returned to office in Sunday’s presidential election. But reports suggest that growing numbers of the country’s voters have had enough of the populist’s quixotic and self-indulgent concept of socialism:
Several years ago, not quite halfway through his 14-year presidency, Hugo Chávez bought a new presidential jet. The $65m Airbus A319 had extravagant white leather interiors, paintings of national heroes hung on the cabin walls and folding seat-back trays with gold hinges.
Critics of the Venezuelan president immediately dubbed it “the plane of shame”. Chávez used it anyway.
In stark contrast to such profligacy, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has attracted growing support in the run-up to Sunday’s poll by emphasizing the daily hardships that afflict most Venezuelans, observers suggest.
“Capriles is very different from other opposition politicians. He realized that he could not connect with people by talking about abstract things like democracy,” analyst Manuel Malaver told Univision/ABC:
During Sunday’s speech Capriles also attempted to counter Chávez campaign discourse, in which the elections are sometimes described as a battle to save the government’s socialist revolution, and the country itself, from right wing extremists backed by foreign powers.
“This is not about being from one ideology or another,” Capriles told his supporters, who packed Caracas’ Bolivar Avenue. “You know that the ideology here is progress, overcoming poverty, and investing the resources of Venezuelans right here, so that we can generate opportunities.”
Chávez is ‘crazed with power,’ Capriles says (above), and the killing of two opposition supporters in Venezuela has inflamed tensions ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.
Take the World Economic Forum’s annual competitiveness rankings. In 2012, Venezuela slipped two places to 126th out of 144 and is now the region’s worst performer, bar Haiti. On some issues – such as judicial security, trust of politicians, red tape, quality of education and labor rigidities – Venezuela comes last, or nearly last. Not all of this, though, is Mr Chávez’s fault. In the WEF’s 1998 report, Venezuela also came last, or nearly last (although among a smaller sample of 58 countries).
This goes to the heart of the difficulties that the opposition has had before when trying to take-on Chávez. Indeed, Mr Chávez often uses the threat of a “return to the past” as one reason why voters should chose him. But now, with the passage of time, the terms of the debate have shifted. Because rather than compare Venezuela today to the Venezuela of yesterday, the opposition are now tacitly comparing it to what Venezuela could have been. Such “what if” comparisons are natural and easy to make; everyone, everywhere, does it with their own country, all the time. In this case, two neighbours – Brazil and Colombia – provide the counterfactual, and the result is damming. Back in 1998, Colombia and Brazil were, like Venezuela, at the bottom of the WEF’s rankings. But today they have climbed into the top third while Venezuela has remained stuck at the back.
“Increasingly, the opposition is using Brazil as the counterfactual; indeed, Mr Capriles often pointedly says how much he admires Brazil,” says Arturo Franco, a fellow at Harvard’s Centre for International Development. “For the first time, economics has found itself at the centre of the campaign, and it is actually providing a compelling argument.”