Uncertainty in Venezuela

The vituperative, smear campaign against Henrique Capriles, following his landslide triumph in Venezuela’s Democratic Unity primary, on February 12, might have had more to do with concerns regarding President Hugo Chávez’s health than the wellbeing of democracy in Venezuela.

In an unprovoked and unreciprocated attack, last week, Mr Chávez, no stranger to intemperate language, began by calling the opposition’s presidential hopeful a “pig.” This was swiftly followed by his supporters and the state media variously labelling the wealthy Mr Capriles “bourgeois” and “fascist,” questioning the legitimacy of the primary, accusing him of being a homosexual and making anti-Semitic comments because of his Jewish roots. Unfortunately, this tends to be the preferred tone of populist authoritarianism.

Then, on Tuesday, President Chávez revealed, after a sudden trip to Cuba, that he is to undergo surgery in Havana to remove a lesion from his pelvic area, where a cancerous tumour was extracted last June, followed by chemotherapy. The news has prompted speculation that Mr Chávez’s condition is more serious than officially acknowledged. Now, with the presidential election set for October 7, Mr Chávez, 57, faces a battle for survival on two fronts.

The opposition candidate, the current governor of Miranda, the most populous state in the country, won 63.9 per cent of the almost 3 million votes cast in the primary and there is cautious optimism that he will be able to unite the notoriously fractious Venezuelan opposition to present a serious challenge to Mr Chávez. More importantly, Mr Capriles, 39, is young enough not to be associated with the corruption and self-serving mismanagement of the old political system broken by Mr Chávez’s election in 1999. This has not, however, prevented Mr Chávez from demonising him as a son of privilege, far removed from the travails of Venezuela’s numerous poor and committed to returning the country to the worst excesses of oligarchic rule.

True, Mr Capriles believes in free-market economics. But he projects himself as a centre-left progressive with a social conscience and appears determined to fight for the people’s favour on the basis of issues rather than personality and pragmatism rather than ideology, declaring that he will confront “violence, unemployment, corruption and other problems in Venezuela.” In addition, he has said that he will preserve and expand some of Mr Chávez’s innovative social programmes, such as the “missions” aimed at providing safety nets and welfare handouts for Venezuela’s poor. This is not only an obvious bid for their votes but also an acknowledgment that not all of Mr Chávez’s policies deserve to be trashed.

Even as Mr Chávez is moving to secure his voter base by ramping up the dispensing of state largesse in the countdown to elections, Mr Capriles has challenged the president to face him on a level playing field, respecting the rules of the game, with equal television airtime and no recourse to public money for campaign purposes. This would appear to be a forlorn hope, but Mr Capriles seems intent on staking out the moral high ground, even as the president and his supporters attack him from the gutter.

Clearly, it will be an uphill battle for Mr Capriles to contend with the resources at Mr Chávez’s disposal, personal abuse, intimidation of voters and a perceived lack of objectivity on the part of the National Electoral Council. But he also will have a lot of work to do to overcome Mr Chávez’s current approval rating of over 50 per cent, which could rise if the president receives another sympathy bounce, as he did after his surgery last year.

Mr Capriles’s campaign manager, Armando Briquet, has stated that the news of Mr Chávez’s latest medical challenge will not change their strategy. “We are facing the issues, not a person,” he has said; “that is what separates us.” But, all things being equal, it could be extremely difficult to separate the two contenders, especially in the contest for the approximately 30 per cent of the electorate – the so-called “ni-ni” (neither-nor) voters – who are dissatisfied with the government’s performance but are not convinced that the opposition can do any better.

The political future in Venezuela is as uncertain as Mr Chávez’s prognosis. The President’s illness has been called the “wild card” in the run up to elections and the prospect of a youthful, energetic challenger taking on an ailing incumbent, or in the worst case scenario, a relatively unknown and untried successor to Mr Chávez, could prove to be not only tense but volatile in the extreme.

It is a situation that bears close monitoring, particularly for Venezuela’s eastern and western neighbours, Guyana and Colombia, and the beneficiaries of PetroCaribe and the adherents to ALBA.

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