Venezuela: Can this man put an end to Chávez’s 13 year reign?
Henrique Capriles will attempt to beat Hugo Chávez in October’s presidential elections. Capriles has adopted a moderate and conciliatory discourse and has even praised some of Chávez’s popular social programs. (Photo: Wordpress)
Thirty-nine-year-old Henrique Capriles recently won the opposition’s presidential primaries in Venezuela, with an impressive 62 percent of the vote.
Capriles is young and energetic, he is the governor of a large state and has gained a reputation for being a politician that “gets things done.”
But will this man be able to conclude President Hugo Chávez’s 13 years at the helm of oil-rich Venezuela in October’s elections? Will he be able to gain enough votes from independents and sway millions of voters who live in poverty and receive substantial handouts and benefits from the current government?
Analysts in Venezuela are saying that Capriles enters this year’s election race as the clear underdog, even if Chávez has not been able to solve important problems like high inflation rates, spiraling crime, and food shortages in Venezuelan cities, where supermarket shelves are sometimes missing key products like eggs and powdered milk.
In a survey conducted by Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis in January, Chávez had 43 percent support, compared to 37 percent for the opposition.
In addition recent increases in social spending, —including greater pension benefits and a $100 a month subsidy for pregnant women and children in poor neighborhoods— are expected to bolster support for Chávez in the months leading up to the election, provided that he can demonstrate that he is not sick and has recovered from last year’s cancer problem.
Mision Barrio Adentro is one of many social program set up by the Chávez government. Barrio Adentro sets up free clinics in poor communities. (Photo: PP)
“If Chávez is healthy, he is the favorite one to win the presidential election in Venezuela next October,” said Datanalisis director Luis Vicente Leon, during a recent panel on the Venezuelan elections at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Venezuelan opposition supporters have often accused Chavez of ramping up social spending in the months prior to elections in order to gain political support.
But perhaps acknowledging the popularity of these social programs, which in Venezuela are known as misiones, Capriles largely refrained from such criticisms during his nomination campaign and in fact, praised some of the misiones.
Capriles has also been careful about criticizing state takeovers of privately owned companies, which has been one of the hallmarks of the Chávez government, saying instead that he will review nationalizations on a case-by-case basis.
Capriles likes to be seen in action in Venezuela’s barrios. On his Facebook page he says that he will visit each and every barrio of Venezuela, crossing the country, like no one has done since 1998. (Photo: Facebook)
Ana Sanjuan, an economist and political analyst with the Andean Development Corporation, says that the Venezuelan opposition will have to consider three key questions, as it attempts to win the votes of moderate Chávez supporters and independent voters.
“Does the opposition want a larger or a smaller state?” San Juan asked at the Wilson Center.
“Does It want more or less social inclusion? Does it want more or less autonomy from the countries at the center (of the global economy)?” she added.
According to Sanjuan, it will not be enough for the opposition to point out certain flaws in the Chávez administration, such as corruption or the mismanagement of the country’s vast oil income, mainly because the poor in Venezuela are still largely sympathetic to Chávez — they benefit from his social programs and identify with the former military commander.
Instead, Sanjuan said, the opposition must generate a discourse that captures the hopes and values of Venezuela’s poor, including their desire for social inclusion, a theme which she said Chavez has “monopolized” until now.
“The opposition has to generate a discourse that goes beyond (government) efficiency,” Sanjuan concluded.
Perhaps, thinking along the same lines as Sanjuan, thus far, Capriles has attempted to portray himself as the candidate that will work for the benefit of all Venezuelans (rather than focusing on his anti-Chávez credentials), saying in his victory speech on Sunday that this election was not about left vs. right battles.
But defeating Chávez will still be a tall order for Capriles, according to Mark Weisbrot, an analyst on political and economic issues at the Washington based Center for Economic Policy Research.
“You have to convince (voters) that they would be better off (without Chavez) and I think it’s going to be very hard,” Weisbrot told Univision News.
Weisbrot argues that the Chávez government and other leftist governments in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador) have been easily reelected over the past decade because large chunks of the population feel the direct benefit of their generous social policies.
Others, like Datanalisis director Juan Vicente Leon, contend that Chávez has stayed in power because he has the benefit of using state oil funds to generously finance multi-million dollar campaigns.
Chavez inspects a Barrio Adentro health center during ‘Alo Presidente’ his (lengthy) Sunday talk show. (Photo: ABN)
Besides running against popular –- or, some would say, populist — social policies, Henrique Capriles will have to fight back against several key messages.
Luis Vicente Leon from Datanalisis argues that in order to cement his lead in the polls, Chávez will try to create the perception amongst voters that if he, or his party, do not remain in power, the social benefits granted by his government will disappear.
Leon also said that through government officials, like the new defense minister Henry Rangel, the Chávez government is also trying to discourage people from voting for the opposition by creating the perception that a Chávez defeat would lead to violence and military coups. In recent declarations to the press, Rangel, a general who plotted an unsuccessful coup attempt with Chavez back in 1992, said that the military will only back a “revolutionary” president.
Sociologist Roberto Briceño, from Venezuela’s Central University, argues that, despite these obstacles, there is a substantial window of opportunity for Venezuela’s opposition in these upcoming elections.
According to surveys conducted by Briceño and his team at the university’s Social Science Laboratory, 40 percent of Venezuelans living in poverty say they are not aligned with Chávez nor with the opposition. Among the “extreme poor” 38 percent described themselves as independents, while 36 percent said they were Chavistas, and a surprising 31 percent said they were “non-Chavistas.”
According to research conducted by sociologist Roberto Briceño, most of Venezuela’s poor are neither for, nor against, Chávez. They describe themselves as ‘non aligned’ or independent voters. (source: Roberto Briceño, LACSO)
In another interesting statistic for Henrique Capriles and Venezuela’s opposition, Briceño found that, among independent or “non-aligned” voters, 52 percent said they want the country to “totally” change, 42 percent said they wanted “some change,” and only 5 percent want things to “stay as they are.”
In his study, Briceño warns about perceiving Venezuela as a country where the middle class automatically identifies with the opposition, and the poor with Chavez, even if there are some correlations. Instead, Briceño says political affiliation is more fluid and “emotional” in Venezuela and argues that, in the upcoming elections, the government and the opposition must focus on winning the votes of a large group of independents in Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods.
Given that people seem to be unhappy with the current state of affairs in Venezuela –- even if government social programs provide some relief — Briceño laid out the following challenges:
“The government must prove that it guarantees continuity but at the same time change … And the opposition must show that there will be change, but at the same time continuity. It must say that social programs will continue, redistributing of wealth will continue, and the handing out of (oil) money will continue.”