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Could Venezuela be singing Hugo Chávez's swan song?

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It is imaginable -- not certain, but certainly possible -- that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on Sunday. The most recent opinion polls showed his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only five per cent or less of the popular vote. If Chávez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?

He says he would, of course, but he also says that it's an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. "It is written," he tells his supporters reassuringly.

But it is not. Chávez really could lose this time, for 30 different opposition parties, ranging from the centre left to the far right, have finally got together and chosen a single candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney: He knows that the votes of the poor matter.

In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chávez's "socialism" and Marxism, and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chávez's social welfare policies, which have poured almost $300 billion over the last dozen years into programs to improve literacy, extend high school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless and subsidize household purchases from groceries to appliances.

Capriles can make those promises because, as with Chávez, he can pay for them out of the country's huge oil revenues. He has to make them, because poorer Venezuelans -- and most Venezuelans are poor -- won't vote for a candidate who would end all that. But Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chávez's ramshackle administration.

Moreover, though Chávez's rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela's economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.

Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela's economy since Chávez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk. And while the oil revenues have been big enough -- $980 billion during Chávez's presidency -- to sustain the subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.

You can work it out on the back of an envelope. There are almost 30 million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared out among them during Chávez's 12 years in power, they would only have got about $3,000 per person per year. Since the oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person per year.

That's nice to have, but it's not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 per cent since 1998, 10 times worse than in Venezuela's neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidized food shops are bare most of the time.

So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies, but to scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy. Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician, and therefore, he really might win the election. What then?

What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful handover of power to the newly elected President Capriles. Chávez has not been reluctant to exploit the government's near-monopoly of the broadcast media and his rhetoric is often vicious -- he has called Capriles a "pig" and a "fascist" -- but unlike the former Communist states of Europe, he has always held real elections he could actually lose.

If he loses this one, he still knows the welfare state he began to build will survive his departure: It is now part of the country's political furniture. He will be conscious that his health might not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluff and bluster about defending the "Bolivarian revolution," he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.

Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome Chávez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2012 A11

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