The people of Venezuela go to the polls on Sunday to participate in a Presidential election of considerable importance to Venezuela, the region, and US national interests. They face a choice between ailing socialist Castro-admiring autocrat Hugo Chavez and young reformist half-Jewish devoutly Catholic former governor and mayor Henrique Capriles.
As anybody with a brain knows--this, therefore, excludes Oliver Stone and Sean Penn--Chavez has conducted what I once in a speech called un golpe a camara lenta (a slow motion coup) against Venezuela's already weak democratic institutions and traditions. Chavez, a violent thug, took advantage of Venezuela's unfortunate history of misgovernment by a rapacious elite that cared only about itself to build a solid base, a la Juan Peron, among the millions of marginalized and "dispossessed." Once he got himself elected in 1998, and assumed power early the next year, he used Venezuela's huge oil reserves to buy himself a nation. He conducted a "populist" war against the wealthy, the US, the Jews, Israel, and, of course, multinational corporations.
He slowly but steadily has been disassembling Venezuela's democratic structures, rewriting the Constitution to increase is powers, using street violence, the tax code, charges of "gouging," and absurd accusations of treason to drive many wealthy Venezuelans out of the country, to split and crush the political opposition, and silence most of the independent media. He struck up a close alliance with the Cuban dictatorship, and came to its rescue as the Castro regime went into a slow motion collapse of its own after the death of its Soviet benefactor. Chavez saw himself as the revolutionary successor to Fidel Castro; the old Cuban apparently willing to encourage this as long as the pompous Venezuelan's oil and petrodollars keep pouring in. Chavez has gone out of his way to provoke the United States, expelling the US Ambassador, and accusing us of conspiring against him. In addition to Cuba and Nicaragua, he struck up alliances with Libya, Iran, Russia, and Syria; he interfered in the internal politics of Bolivia, Honduras, Argentina, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and several Caribbean states. He has used the nation's vast oil wealth to try to buy himself friends and diminish the influence of the United States in the region.
Despite the oil, during Chavez's term Venezuela's economy went into a downward spiral from which it has not pulled out. The mismanagement and corruption has reached astronomical levels. The size of government has exploded, and public-sector workers and those on the dole are expected to be loyal to Chavez. Friends and family of Chavez have lucrative jobs, even if they have no qualifications, and he has sprinkled millions among senior military officers. Oil production is in decline as technicians and managers have left for Canada, the US, and elsewhere.
For the first time in his long and horrid rule, however, the ailing dictator, who suffers from cancer of unknown severity, has a formidable challenger on his hands. The long divided opposition has rallied behind Capriles, who has conduced a superb campaign under very difficult conditions. His campaign has been subjected to a seemingly endless barrage of violence, verbal intimidations, vile insults, and various other abuses by Chavez. How unfree and unfair this election will be is anybody's guess. I refer you to the excellent article by my friend Luis Fleischman, who knows much more about Venezuela than I, and has, as usual, a perceptive analysis of the electoral state of play and its meaning for the United States.
It looks possible for Capriles to win this. The polling is all over the place. Polling is notoriously inaccurate in most of Latin America and tends to overstate significantly support for the incumbent: in most countries people will not tell an unknown pollster that they oppose the nation's ruler. Capriles' people, however, seem to have internal polling that shows him well ahead of Chavez. If Capriles pulls this off, the questions then become: How fair will the vote count be? Will Chavez admit defeat? Would Chavez supporters allow Chavez to go down in defeat?
I don't know the answers but suspect little chance exists of Chavez admitting defeat and leaving office unless the Capriles victory proves so overwhelming that it becomes impossible to hide. If Capriles pulls off a landslide, some senior military officers could abandon Chavez and refuse to participate in a suppression of the popular will. Capriles presumably would have to convince those officers who have gotten wealthy thanks to socialism that he does not intend to go after them and their fortunes.
As with so many other failed or borderline failed states, Venezuela has allowed itself to fall for the myth of the indispensable man. Chavez sees himself as such, despite his illness; it remains to be seen whether Venezuelans, especially his supporters, still view him that way.