Gwynne Dyer: Will Hugo Chavez lose the next Venezuelan presidential election?

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It is imaginable—not certain, but certainly possible—that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman ruler since 1998, will lose the presidential election on October 7. The most recent opinion polls showed that his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only five percent or less of the popular vote. If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?

He says he would, of course—but he also says that it’s an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. “It is written,” he tells his supporters reassuringly. But it is not. Chavez really could lose this time, for 30 different opposition parties, ranging from the centre-left to the far right, have finally got together and chosen a single candidate for the presidency. Moreover, Capriles is no Mitt Romney: he knows that the votes of the poor matter.

In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism, and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies, which have poured almost $300 billion over the last dozen years into programmes to improve literacy, extend high school education, improve health care, build housing for the homeless, and subsidise household purchases from groceries to appliances.

Capriles can make those promises because, like Chavez, he can pay for them out of the country’s huge oil revenues. He has to make them, because poorer Venezuelans—and most Venezuelans are poor—won’t vote for a candidate who would end all that. But Capriles says he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption, and a lot of people believe him. It would not be hard to be more efficient than Chavez’s ramshackle administration.

Capriles also has the advantage of being 18 years younger and a lot fitter than the incumbent, who has been fighting cancer for the past15 months. Chavez says it is cured now, but physically he is clearly not the man he was. Some of his own supporters suspect that he is not long for this world—and while they still love Chavez himself, they neither love nor trust the people around him, who might seize power when he was gone.

Moreover, though Chavez’s rule has benefited the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than those of its big neighbours, Brazil and Colombia, even though it has enjoyed the advantages of big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.

Indeed, almost all the growth in Venezuela’s economy since Chavez took power is due to higher oil prices; most other parts of the economy have shrunk. And while the oil revenues have been big enough—$980 billion during Chavez’s presidency—to sustain the subsidies at their current level, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.

You can work it out on the back of an envelope. There are almost 30 million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared out among them during Chavez’s 12 years in power, they would only have got about $3,000 per person per year. Since the oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person per year.

That’s nice to have, but it’s not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel that they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 percent since 1998, 10 times worse than in Venezuela’s neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidised food shops are bare most of the time.

It’s like the old Soviet Union: when a shipment of some basic commodity finally arrives, it is all snapped up instantly, and then there is nothing until the next delivery. Nationalisation and central planning didn’t do the old Communist states of Europe any good, and they haven’t worked in Venezuela either. Something radical must be done to get the real, non-oil economy growing at a decent rate.

So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies, but to scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy. Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician, and therefore he really might win the election. What then?

What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful hand-over of power to the newly elected President Capriles. Chavez has not been reluctant to exploit the government’s near-monopoly of the broadcast media and his rhetoric is often vicious—he has called Capriles a “pig” and a “fascist”— but unlike the former Communist states of Europe, he has always held real elections that he could actually lose.

If he loses this one, he still knows that the welfare state he began to build will survive his departure: it is now part of the country’s political furniture. He will be conscious that his health might not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluff and bluster about defending the “Bolivarian revolution”, he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.

Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question, but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.

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Issac Chandler
"the government’s near-monopoly of the broadcast media"
The only reason Dyer can get away with this misleading rhetoric is because of the abusive media concentration in the west. Fox does better than this..

The main television networks are RCTV; Televen; Venevisión; Globovisión - all private...the state television station Venezolana de Televisión,was nationalized , after prolonged financial problems in1974. The oil industry was nationalizes in 1971 - Chavez was still in high school...He did prevent the corupt oil company management from stealing ( sorry privatizing ) funds in Swiss banks.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Venezuelan_oil_industry#se...

"If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?"
Another questions is, if Capriles loses, will he take power violently?
Capriles was charged with involment in the coup d'état but the prosecutor Danilo Anderson - was assassinated when C-4 plastic explosives were placed under his SUV:
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danilo_Anderson

"Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than...Brazil"
Brazil’s economy has grown faster than a few other nameless countries also...And following the failure of the coup in 2002, those opposed to President Chávez the CIA turned to economic and other means to achieve their goals.

I know one thing much of that $980 billion would have kept Wall Street and south Florida humming if Chavez had not wasted it in Venezuela. This strongman was able to push Noam Chomsky book to #1 on NYT - Oprah couldn't do that

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P.Peto
Dyer seems to be following the lead of pro corporate western press in demonizing Hugo Chavez. It's a pity he choses to berate Hugo's legacy to Venezula. I very much doubt if they would have done better under the usual neo fuedal Latin American pro business,pro American dictatorship. If Capriles should win I hope he doesn't roll back the "Bolivarian Revolution". I wouldn;t count on it.
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RMurphy
Manipulators and Media Prepare to Intervene in Venezuela:

"Our biggest concern has to do with the possibilities of an orchestrated effort to destabilize or overthrow Venezuela’s elected government in the event of a probable reelection of President Hugo Chavez. Especially troubling are the words of Patrick Duddy, former Ambassador to Venezuela under President Bush. Writing for the Council of Foreign Relations, Duddy recommended that “If the election results appear fraudulent…the United States should encourage international pressure” including such tactics as acting to “…freeze individual bank accounts of key figures…and seize assets in the United States. It could also arrange for the proceeds of Venezuelan government-owned corporate entities like CITGO to be held in escrow accounts” and could “block access to CITGO’s refining facilities….” Duddy goes on to discuss military options, stating that “…while Chavez loyalists dominate the Venezuelan high command, it is not clear to what extent they control the middle ranks.”

Duddy’s concern regarding “fraudulent” elections either is not founded in objective reality or, worse, is the kind of pre-election posturing used to justify some sort of intervention down the line. Most independent and objective polls are showing a commanding lead for Chávez, so commanding that even pollsters normally associated with the opposition, such as Datanalisis, are showing double digit leads for the president. However, a couple of recent and isolated surveys by Consultores 21 and Pedicmatica, have shown gains and/or a slight lead for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

But, to listen to US-based corporate media one would think Chavez is on the verge of defeat. Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the Miami Herald all have written stories trumpeting their assertions that Capriles is “gaining ground”, in a “dead heat”, or “leading” against Chávez. The Miami Herald has gone farther, blaming “a run of calamities” on the president and, worse, to allege threats, vandalism and assaults to “Violent groups linked to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution….”

Lest one takes these allegations at face value, it is good to remember a couple of things. Patrick Duddy was expelled from Venezuela in 2008 after a group of military officers undertook a plan to assassinate President Chavez in what was believed to be a US supported plot. Several years prior was the famous attempted overthrow of the Chavez government in April 2002, a coup attempt that the US advised and funded. Key to that effort were the incitement of right wing mobs to violence and the use of snipers to shoot people in the streets and then blame the violence on supporters of Pres. Chavez. This fact is well-documented and painstakingly verified in the documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised." http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/7282
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R U Kiddingme
It is important that Chavez lose, just to show that he can and that Venezuela is not, as alleged by the American right, a straight up dictator.

I am not strongly against his policies -- there is a certain wisdom in nationalization and in raising strong protectionist firewalls -- but he's had a 14 year run and that's plenty for one guy, even a guy who is not in extremely questionable health. The optics are just too bad.
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Issac Chandler
"closed the gap between them to only five percent "

The CIA and Pentagon are spending $millions every year on PSYOP operations. A CIA memo (about Operation "Pliers" ), describes how the CIA contracts polling companies to create fraudulent polls:
http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18792.htm

Carl Bernstein wrote about these operations are used against the American public. The CIA and the media:
http://www.carlbernstein.com/magazine_cia_and_media.php

Gwynne Dyer is participating in the American propaganda model:
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_model#section_1
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