Comandante Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías has come a long way since his altar boy days in Barinas state. A landslide victory swept him to the presidency 14 years ago, and there it all began. The election of 1998 allowed Chávez to establish the Bolivarian Revolution, a national plan he developed and polished as a young army officer, and clung to while prisoner after executing a failed coup in 1992 against the Carlos Andrés Pérez administration (1974-1979; 1989-1993).
His rule over Venezuelans has not been without scandal. Populist programs, nationwide subsidies, land seizures and nationalizations, disputes with Colombia and the United States, arms acquisitions from Russia, energy agreements with Iran, and close ties with Gadaffi´s Libya, Belarus, China and Cuba have both earned Chávez aficionados and foes. Through charisma and organization he won the election in 1998, beat a coup in 2002, defeated a referendum in 2004, and was re-elected again in 2006. This year, he wants six more years in high office.
Luck and charisma may not be enough to save this caudillo. Biology and economics are thwarting El Comandante´s 2012 battle plans. His cancer refuses to go, and his ship of state remains stuck in a titanic socio-political hurricane. For starters, inflation hovers at 30 percent, the highest in Latin America and the second highest in the world after Ethiopia. Homicides are at an all-time high at 67 per 100,000 inhabitants (in Caracas the number lingers between 70 and 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, depending on the source). By comparison, Mexico´s powerful cartels level murders at 24 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The figures are a direct result of high unemployment, especially among youth, and the uncontrolled sale of firearms throughout the country. A gun law recently passed by the National Assembly aims to limit these sales, but the Chavista gesture comes too late. The new law does as much as a 2010 ban on publishing bloody pictures in newspapers. The ban came a month ahead of National Assembly elections to curb what Chávez called “pornographic journalism” when one of the nation´s top newspapers ran a picture of an overrun morgue in Caracas to showcase Venezuela´s crime problem. The 2010 photo ban and the recent law barring civilians from purchasing guns do little to prevent murder.
According to Professor Aaron Karp, co-editor of the Contemporary Security Policy journal, 2 of every 10 Venezuelans own a firearm. Karp estimates military and police personnel have 357,000 guns and rifles to confront an estimated 2 million firearms in the hands of the masses. The problem multiplies when you consider the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who traffic arms and drugs, freely, through Venezuela´s northwest border.
Being a member of Chávez ´s United Socialist Party of Venezuela—Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV)—has its benefits, but offers no guarantees: government housing, food and medical and financial aid are often delivered late, never or incomplete. Power outages are common, and basic provisions like eggs, milk and meat are often in short supply, forcing the poorest to live on an uneven diet of pasta, sardines, bread, and beans.
Meanwhile, Chávez has earned the nickname Don Regalón (Don Giveaway) for donating and offering millions of barrels of crude at discount prices to Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, the Caribbean, London, and portions of New York City. His largesse also includes food and medical and financial aid to faraway countries like Iran, Angola, Chad, and Burundi.
Less than 45 days to election day, the opposition remains united under the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (Democratic Roundtable—MUD), which consists of 16 national and regional political parties and dozens of civil society organizations and left-of-center movements. MUD accomplished the unthinkable in 2008, organizing and mobilizing all political opposition forces. Its earliest triumph came in 2010 when it won 47 percent of the vote for the National Assembly, only to be denied the proportional number of seats by a Chavista legislature fearful of a stronger opposition.
The movement is further strengthened by occupying state seats in Zulia, Carabobo, Lara, Táchira, Nueva Esparta, Amazonas, and the Municipality of Caracas.
Despite official intimidation, MUD´s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles Randonski, remains undeterred and continues campaigning across the nation, even after gunfire wounded two supporters during a campaign rally. He vows to improve education, health, security, housing, and employment conditions. His plan begins at pregnancy, providing soon-to-be mothers safe and wholesome maternal environments, followed by advanced health and nutrition and education programs for children until their fifth birthday.
Improvements in infrastructure and public transportation, a public education system overhaul (to include math, science and technology instruction at public universities) and designs to decentralize political power from Caracas are integrated into his national plan. In addition, he places special emphasis in lessening the treasury´s dependence on oil bonanzas and wants to resurrect the private sector through public-private partnerships.
The opposition claims Chávez´s annual spending includes an estimated $7 billion in oil revenues on foreign governments and movements. Capriles contends he will reduce foreign spending to create 3 million jobs and pay for redesigned social programs.
The candidate´s promises have some in the opposition thinking Capriles belongs to the socialist Don Regalón class. But those contemplating this notion should recognize that political reality obliges candidates across the whole of Latin America to offer robust social programs for their populations. Without them, elections are lost. Venezuela is no exception: Capriles, if elected, will have the difficult task of reengineering social programs to meet the needs of those who truly need assistance, and reverse a century-long trend of leveraging social programs for political expediency.
Don Regalón or not, Capriles, like Chávez, has singled out and courted the nation´s military and 2.5 million public employees. Both have delivered special campaign messages to these groups, guaranteeing benefits and jobs after election day.
Capriles, ex-governor of Miranda State and former mayor of the municipality of Baruta in Caracas, is an experienced político with strong backing from opposition leaders like María Corina Machado, who has dedicated the better part of a decade struggling to keep elections clean in Venezuela. Both have been branded Zionists, imperialist gophers, coup-plotters, and CIA tacticians by Chávez and state-run media. In more than one instance, these accusations have caused brawls in the National Assembly and fisticuffs at opposition rallies.
While the opposition races uphill against multiple obstacles, Otro Beta, a national youth movement that uses music and dance to keep youth off the streets, merged with the Chávez campaign. They are responsible for lyrics, graffiti and social media messages eulogizing the Comandante. Soon after one of his cancer treatment trips to Cuba, he danced as Venezuelan rapper Rodbexa praised his administration. At public events, Chávez sings and embraces children dressed in military fatigues. Chávez ´s public appearances, while few, are staged with tens of thousands of supporters.
Latest polling from Consultores 21 has both candidates in a virtual tie, while another respected polling firm, Datanálisis, gives Chávez a 12-point lead, but concedes the opposition is gaining ground. A betting man would go with Datanálisis. Roughly 9 percent of the electorate is undecided, and 61 percent of the population approves of Chávez. The opposition, however, has a solid base of 6 million votes and can triumph if they capture an additional 1.5 million votes.
Polling by Hinterlaces places abstention at 8 percent of the total voter roll of 18 million. This number correlates with previous elections where abstention leveled at 3 percent and expresses Venezolanos strong intent to vote on October 7. This election, more than any other since Chávez´s rise, is about democracy, freedom of speech, liberty, and property.
Juan Manuel Henao is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.