Oct 7, 2012


As Andrea timely reminded in this blog some days ago, today Venezuela holds Presidential elections, and media in Latin America, as well as the international sections of most papers and political magazines in the world are making it the topic of the week.

On the one hand, the incumbent, Hugo Chávez: a former paratrooper who got as far as obtaining the rank of Lt. Coronel, who staged a failed coup in 1992, was imprisoned and returned to the Venezuelan political scene in 1998 when he was the presidential candidate of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which he founded. Hence, he has been in power almost 14 years and wants to remain there for another 6, making it his fourth term. On the other hand, the challenger, Henrique Capriles: lawyer, was related to the group that staged a coup finally neutralized against Chávez in 2002, and returned to the Venezuelan political scene in 2008, when he led a successful campaign as a candidate of Justice First (Primero Justicia), the opposition party which he co-founded in 2000, to be governor of the state of Miranda. Now, supported by all the opposition parties, he is confident the Venezuelan voter will give him the chance to start a new era for his country.

What would that new era be about? Or, to put it differently, what has Venezuela been about these almost 14 years? An oversimplified answer would be: nationalizations, irresponsible economic management (to say the least, the last 50 years have demonstrated at one time or another that it is not very wise to base the economy of a country on oil exports), some doses of personality cult, and unfairness in political contests. Indeed all those ingredients have been present in Venezuela, but there is a certain agreement that Chávez’s strategy to stay in power has not relied only, nor to the largest extent, on the manipulation of electoral results or the decisive elimination of the opposition. When he first took office, Venezuela was in recession, as measured by the yearly reduction of the GDP. Months later, the country began to grow. A general strike, specifically because of the participation of the oil industry workers, meant an economic disaster, fostering the opposition to call for a referendum in 2004, which Chávez won. Once the strike was over, the Venezuelan economy not only recovered but was boosted. This allowed the government to implement a large public spending policy through the so-called Missions (Missiones), comprised of programs to improve all levels of education, nourishment, provision of public services, health care, housing, and a general amelioration of living conditions for the indigenous groups. This, plus an anti-American speech that even today is more or less well sold to some people in Latin America, have given Chávez continuous support.

And why is Capriles so confident about his success today? Otherwise said, have the conditions that have played in favor of Chávez no longer in place, or even weak? The mere fact that there is an opposition candidate of a long-existing political party is a good sign for Capriles. Venezuela and Bolivia are textbook examples of what scholars such as Scott Mainwaring have called “the crisis of representation”, a chronic feebleness of political parties that have prevented them from articulating interests and achieving their main function of representation. The challenger to Chávez in the 2000 elections was from a party called The Radical Cause (La Causa Radical), of Marxist orientation and not a very good alternative to Chávez. And in the 2006 exercise, the other contender for the Presidency of Venezuela was supported by a brand-new alliance of parties from the most different points of view (including Marxists, labor groups, social democrats, Christian democrats, centrists, rightists, etc.), which can be argued did not have sufficient time to convince the voters to choose such an eclectic coalition. But an idea remained in the Venezuelan opposition: without a unique opposition candidate it was not possible to even consider beating Chávez. So, all opposition parties have rallied behind Justice First to support Capriles. Even more, the oil-based economy of Venezuela is close to having given all it had to offer, Capriles marks a youthful and active contrast against the perhaps too often seen image of Chávez, and, maybe more importantly, the supporters of the challenger seem to be far more enthusiastic about their chances than in the previous two electoral calls under Chávez.

Notwithstanding some changes in the political landscape of Venezuela, there are some caveats. First, Chávez is the incumbent, and there is an almost unanimous consensus on the unfairness of the campaign. Second, optimism can mean nothing. Antanas Mockus, former major of Bogotá, to the surprise of many lost in front of the official candidate Juan Manuel Santos in the Colombian Presidential elections of 2010.

In his Foreign Policy article dating from January 2006 “Hugo Boss” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2006/01/04/hugo_boss), Javier Corrales mentioned that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, then close to approaching a decade in power, “had found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again, if not with the masses, with at least enough voters to win elections”. He had achieved that, Corrales continued, by means of a relatively small set of actions: attacking political parties, polarizing society, spreading wealthy selectively, allowing bureaucracy to almost decay, and antagonizing a superpower. But there is always a moment when people like to hear the same tune all over again. That moment can be today. In some hours we will see if six and a half years after the article was written his own style of authoritarianism is still fashionable and if Hugo is still the Boss.


1 Comment

  • It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future! Hugo still is the boss. What happened?

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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