Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Could Venezuela be singing Hugo Chávez's swan song?

  • Print

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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Raw: Video shows destroyed West Hawk Inn

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS June 23, 2011 Local - A Monarch butterfly is perched on a flower  in the newly opened Butterfly Garden in Assiniboine Park Thursday morning.
  • A goose heads for shade in the sunshine Friday afternoon at Woodsworth Park in Winnipeg - Day 26– June 22, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What do you think of the new school-zone speed limit?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google