Hugo Chávez, strongman on the run

There’s an unfamiliar challenge in his bid for a fourth term as president: a legitimate political opponent
David Agren
Strongman on the run
Miraflores Palace/Handout/Reuters

TV screens often switch without warning across Venezuela for unscheduled messages brought to them by the Ministry of People’s Power for Communication and Information. Radio stations follow suit—as obligated for these interruptions, known as cadenas, or chains. The cadenas usually carry an address from President Hugo Chávez, who is known to talk at length—nine-plus hours on one occasion—about his political projects and plans for “21st-century socialism.” The appearances seldom highlight pressing problems, such as a recent prison riot that added to the more than 300 deaths that have occurred behind bars this year, or the late August explosion that ripped apart the country’s most important refinery and claimed 48 lives.

Cadenas have been a fact of life in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but with elections scheduled for Oct. 7, Chávez has had a lot more to opine about of late. The broadcasts underscore what opponents and analysts say is an unfair advantage for Chávez as he seeks his fourth term as president of a country with the world’s largest proven petroleum oil reserves. The often confrontational president and cancer survivor—he credits his recovery to treatments in Cuba—can already count on positive press coverage, having forced non-compliant channels off the air or into submission. He also has the courts and the electoral commission in his corner, the opposition contends. Then there’s his seemingly bottomless barrel of petro bucks to ply poor voters with everything from cheap appliances and free houses to clinics staffed with Cuban doctors.

Still, some polls place Chávez in a surprisingly close race with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor, 40-year-old grandson of a Holocaust survivor, and standard-bearer of a new generation of opposition politicians whose careers began after Chávez won power in 1998. Capriles’s predecessors often campaigned on simply ousting Chávez from office—failing to recognize the military-man-turned-populist president’s pull with the poor, and their parties’ own unpopularity from past years of presiding over petroleum-fuelled booms that didn’t benefit the bottom rungs of society. Capriles, in comparison, promises no radical changes to the programs for the poor that Chávez claims to champion—health, housing and poverty reduction, to name three. He campaigns on the issues: crime, corruption and depoliticizing public policy and petroleum.

He also tries to reassure government workers and the poor they won’t lose their jobs or benefits for voting against Chávez—something easier said than done. “If you’re poor in Venezuela, you pay a big price to be visible as an opposition supporter,” says Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan political affairs blogger and columnist now based in Montreal. “The economy is so state-dependent and the state is not at all shy about shutting off the flow of benefits to those that don’t support Chávez personally.”

Venezuelans who opposed Chávez in the past, by signing petitions for an unsuccessful recall referendum in 2004, for instance, found themselves on a blacklist. When workers in the state-owned oil company PDVSA went on strike in 2003, Chávez fired them. (Many of the best and brightest were recruited to bring their experience in heavy oil extraction to the Alberta oil sands.)

But voters now appear to be embracing Capriles in growing numbers. A survey released last month by polling firm Consultores 21 showed Capriles up by 1.8 points. Toro says some pro-Chávez polls—which show the president miles ahead—have clouded the picture. He and other observers believe the race is close and point to the president’s profligate spending as proof. “The remarkable thing is that it’s competitive at all,” Toro says. “Capriles is not running against a government party. He’s running against a petro state.”

Capriles tirelessly tours Venezuelan villages, where Chávez traditionally draws enormous support. He also concentrates on social media—mainly because Chávez controls most of the mainstream media outlets. Capriles recognizes it’s not a fair fight, but says he’s undeterred. “It’s no secret that in Venezuela there is no division of powers,” Capriles told Maclean’s via email. “Many functionaries have put on blinders when looking at irregularities because they benefit from the revolution and its corruption.”

Toro notes many such irregularities in his political-analysis blog Caracas Chronicles: air traffic controllers refused permission for Capriles’s plane to land for a campaign stop; soldiers rationing fuel in remote regions, only supplying government supporters. In one campaign controversy, election officials found fault with the yellow, red and blue baseball cap Capriles often wears. They said it resembles the flag, ruling it an improper use of national symbols—even as Chávez sports a coat in a similar style with patriotic colours. Capriles later commented caustically on Twitter, “There are thousands of Venezuelans living in cardboard houses and the issue for the government is the cap I’m wearing!”

For now, those Venezuelans living in cardboard houses have not entirely turned their backs on Chávez. “He speaks to the poor, he’s one of them, he’s a mirror to them . . . so they’ve always been very supportive,” says Russell Dallen, managing partner of Caracas Capital Markets.

Chávez captured power by promising to do away with a political system he considered decadent and uninterested in the plight of the poor, who watched the prosperity of petroleum booms pass them by. But it’s not clear how well his system is working for most Venezuelans. The government says poverty dropped by 21.6 per cent between 1999 and 2010. And most analysts agree that an oil boom drove down poverty until 2008, when the price of petroleum plummeted. Then oil prices rebounded, and so did inflation. It still sits at an annual rate of 21.3 per cent, according to a July report by Bloomberg. “They’re actually worse off now than they were 10 years ago,” Dallen says of the poor. “The [cost of a] basket of food compared to their minimum salary is twice as much now.”

Shortages and subsidies have become common. Dallen has experienced both. He fills up his bulletproof SUV with 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline. But with groceries, “I rarely ever see fresh milk in my supermarket.” Half his office clears out on the days that eggs appear at a nearby market. “That’s their only opportunity to get eggs,” he says.

How much that sort of hardship harms Chávez remains to be seen. “Chávez’s popularity does not depend entirely on the economic success or stability of the country,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council on the Americas. The president’s opponents, he says, “fail to understand the deep reserves of resentment for the old ruling class and the reserves of support for Chávez.”

Crime may be an Achilles heel for Chávez, however—and Capriles promises action. “We’re going to tackle the topic of security,” he told Maclean’s. By many accounts, crime is on the rise, but it’s hard to quantify. The non-governmental organization Venezuela Violence Observatory estimates that 2011 was the most violent ever, with a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 residents—four times the Mexican rate. The Economist reports that the Venezuelan government has stopped publishing crime statistics. “This government has cadenasfor hours and hours to talk about problems in other countries,” Capriles complained via Twitter after an Aug. 20 cadena called shortly after the prison riot that claimed 25 lives, “but never mentions the subject of insecurity.”

Capriles’s tweet also criticized Chávez’s foreign policy objectives, which include winning regional support through cheap petroleum exports—a scheme known as Petrocaribe. Pundits say the program polls poorly and Capriles promises an end to it. “Not a drop of oil will leave Venezuela while there’s even one Venezuelan in extreme poverty,” he has said. Petrocaribe sells oil for 50 per cent down and 50 per cent financed for 25 years at low interest rates. The countries, many of whose oil accounts are in arrears, can also pay back Venezuela with commodities—like beans—says Joel Hirst, fellow with the George W. Bush Institute and a former USAID official in Venezuela. Transparency is also lacking. Hirst points to Nicaragua, whose president pays his petroleum bill with beans bought from favoured businesses—something known in Latin America as a negocio redondo, or circular business.

The soaring price of petroleum—moving from just over $10 a barrel when Chávez took office to around $100 a barrel now—has made much of the Chávez agenda possible, as well as the lavish campaign pledges, critics say. PDVSA is investing in social programs, rather than production, notes Carlos Cárdenas, director of Latin America forecasting for the London-based risk consultancy Exclusive Analysis. It puts the oil concern in a position where “it’s financing most everything” in Venezuela. But exactly what happens with all the PDVSA income is unclear. Cárdenas says the government sets an official budget with an oil price just north of $40 a barrel. “The rest of the money . . . they don’t account for it,” he says.

Capriles pledges that PDVSA, plagued by production problems, will perform better and operate in a less political way. But whether Capriles will be able to carry out his pledges is still uncertain, regardless of the election results. Sabatini says “chavismo” will live on as a political project in Venezuela for the foreseeable future—even if Chávez loses the election or succumbs to cancer. “It’s a cult of personality,” Sabatini says. “Venezuela has turned the corner and there is no going back.”