The End of the Road for Hugo Chavez?

With Venezuela’s presidential election coming up in less than a fortnight and think-tanks publishing neck-and-neck polling statistics, it looks like we can now realistically contemplate a Venezuela without Hugo Chávez for the first time in thirteen years.  The opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Randonski, a centre-right politician and former governor of Miranda state, has caught the attention of media worldwide with his extremely successful electoral campaign against one of Latin America’s most influential and established political leaders; only last week Consultores 21, a South American think-tank, gave Capriles a 2% lead in the polls.

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A mixture of bad luck, changing interests and competent opposition has narrowed the gap between Chávez and Capriles since campaigning officially began on the 1st of July.  After his cancer diagnosis in 2011 Chávez now claims that he has the all clear but there are still doubts as to whether he’s fit for another presidential term.  Despite flying to Brazil in July in his first trip abroad since his operation and joining in the dancing at a campaign last week, he has not been able to run as energetic a campaign as usual and it as has been Capriles who has made a point of walking, and even running, to many of his rallys.  Chávez’s continual efforts to show his physical fitness suggest that he is well aware that he has lost one of his best assets: the ability to make impelling speeches and improvise for hours on end.   An asset he has deployed on his TV programme, Aló Presidente, for years to increase his support base.

While Chávez’s failing health could not be helped, the same cannot be said for his failure to adapt his policies to the needs of the country and Capriles has done well to capitalise on the weak points of Chávez’s policies.  He has focussed on attracting Chávez’s main support base, public employees and the poor, by promising to tackle issues like unemployment, poverty and crime; while his supporters point out that poverty has declined 30% during Chávez’s presidency, with a murder rate four times that of Mexico there is no denying that Venezuela’s domestic issues need to be addressed.  It seems that the Venezuelan public have become tired of spending money which could improve conditions in their own country on Chávez’s worldwide “construction of socialism”.

For in the past decade, Chávez has spent millions in ‘gifts’ – often perceived as gifts bribes given their political context – on left-wing countries across South America in one of the biggest attempt to revive socialism in recent years.  While countries like Ecuador and Bolivia have received relatively small ‘gifts’, Cuba and Nicaragua have become reliant on Venezuela’s financial support.

After the demise of the Soviet Union, and the consequent change in its economic relationship with the island, Chávez was in many ways the saviour of the Cuban economy, selling the country oil at interest rates of less than 3% and giving at least $20 million in ‘gifts’.  Given the current state of its economy which looks to be heading for another downturn, Cuba has been rooting for a Chávez victory.  Last week Fidel Castro sent Chávez a message of solidarity from Cuba’s “impassioned people who firmly support you” and the Cuban communist newspaper, Granma, has been publishing warped polling stats claiming that Chávez has a 23% lead over Capriles.

A Chávezian victory would perhaps be even more welcome in Nicaragua, where Venezuelan money has been used to modernise the country by upgrading factories, building zinc roofs and paying public employees.  In 2012 Nicaragua received $510 million from the Bolivarian Alliance for the People for Our Americas (ALBA), an organisation created by Chávez in 2004 to encourage social, political and economic integration within the Americas.

While Capriles’ economic policy is by no means hostile to other South American countries, it is likely that he will use the money from Venezuela’s oil to improve his own country’s economy and status on the international market rather than to use it to coax socialist allies with ‘gifts’.  His plans to “increase private participation in the hydro-carbon industry” indicate a much more right wing economic stance.

The removal of both the economic and ideological driving force behind Latin American socialism may well undo all that the work that Chávez has done to revive it.  According to Adolfo Salguiero, a professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela there are two spheres of Chávezian influence: “those committed ideologically in ALBA and those allied economically in the Petrocaribe” (a Caribbean oil alliance with Venezuela). Without Chávez, Salguiero thinks that these two organizations will disappear, leading to an eventual decline in coordination and economic prestige amongst the socialist Latin American countries.

The fact that socialism in both Venezuela and Latin America is so reliant on Chávez as an individual means that a victory for Capriles, and his more domestically-orientated policies, would mean a huge change in both domestic and international politics.  The continent will no doubt retain its socialist character, partly due to its history, partly through a dislike for the West (in particular the United States) and partly because it is simply a good excuse to nationalise industries when governments fall on hard times.  However, without the ‘champion of socialism’ or Venezuela’s oil to overome the shortfalls of socialist economies, more countries may have to follow Cuba’s lead and adopt some capitalist policies in order to survive.  If no one steps up to fill Chávez’s shoes, a victory for Capriles on the 7th of October could mark the beginning of the end for socialism in South America.

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