Politics & Policy

‘A Matter of the People’

Careening toward chaos in Caracas.

Caracas can deceive a visitor initially. Despite a horrifically debilitating decade under Hugo Chavez’s negligent despotism, some things remain the same. The city still has a range of excellent restaurants. If you look over the city from the hills — better yet, peer down from an elegant condominium balcony — by day or night, Caracas can seem like the energetic, exciting city of yore.

#ad#It isn’t. The drive to Caracas from Maiquetia airport is dangerous at night and unsightly by day. By night thugs, many dressed as police, stop vehicles, rob their passengers and often steal the cars. The hills are filled with squalid ranchos — shack-filled ghettos — populated by a million or more desperately poor Venezuelan peasants, who have become the most solid core of Chavez’s steadily eroding support. Once inside Venezuela’s capital, it’s clear the street network has not been expanded for years, and its pothole-filled lanes are blocked around the clock.

Caracas is on a downward slide that seems unstoppable. The rural poor have invaded and endangered the city of six million as never before. The wealthy — those who have not fled to southern Florida, Colombia, or Spain — lead a surrealistic existence, smiling through ever-increasing gloom and believing that somehow, some day Venezuela will be rid of Chavez, socialism, corruption, and insecurity.

THOUGHTS ON THE GROUND

During a two-week visit, I attended a major conference sponsored by Veneconomia.com, the country’s premier economic, political, and social analytical group, conducted 37 interviews and encountered just three individuals who believed the opposition should do anything more than wait out Chavez’s demise.

The overwhelming sentiment is that Chavez is doing so much damage to himself and the economy that he will self-destruct. November 23 state and municipal elections will indicate just how low Venezuela has sunk in ten years of erratic rule, and its president with it.

Entrepreneur Jorge Redmond thinks positive change is coming: “Cubans run extraordinarily inefficient ministries, and 80 percent of the population does not want a Cuban-style government.” A former president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, Redmond runs Chocolates El Rey, whose 250 employees produce extraordinarily fine chocolate that is exported to 30 countries.

Commenting on bureaucratic interference and inefficiency, Redmond notes, “In 1999, there were fours steps required to export; today there are literally 50. Not one of them has any value.

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“The government payroll expanded from 1.2 million to six million in less than ten years, and Chavez makes every important decision. It is all very militaristic, in the worst sense: its ineffectiveness. We live in a very stressful environment and doing business is very difficult,” Redmond adds. Then comes the surprising twist: “But the situation cannot continue, which ultimately makes me optimistic about the future.”

Electoral prospects for the opposition do look guardedly positive. Latest projections by informed observers are somewhat lower than earlier, owing to enormous government spending and public threats in the final weeks. Previous estimates that anti-Chavez candidates will take 8-13 of the country’s 23 governorships have been cut to “five or better” by two analysts, while winning hundreds of mayoral contests. They see legislative elections in 2010 as the next step in the former lieutenant colonel’s (his approval rating hovers around 50 percent) inexorable decline. After heavy chavista losses in 2010, most predict the finish will come in the 2012 presidential election.

This patient attitude seems delusory and dangerous. The current situation begs action by a peacefully aggressive opposition.

‐ Overall inflation is 36 percent, heading for 50 percent. Inflation of consumables — the stuff on which people subsist — is 50 percent, heading for 100 percent.

‐Insecurity is the greatest concern of caraqueños as their city sports the highest murder rate (132 per 100,000 inhabitants) in the world, with the majority of killings afflicting the poor.

‐ Corruption is so rampant that citizens typically tip 100 to 300 bolivares ($25-75) to renew their mandatory cedula identity cards.

The non-privileged with whom I spoke all expressed a weary, fear-ridden sense of what lay ahead. One said, “The cost of food, when available, rises daily. We can’t keep up. I fear for my family.” It is difficult to imagine the people and the economy peacefully surviving for four more years.

The government does recognize its shrinking power among the poorest of the poor, those whom another populist autocrat, Argentina’s Juan Peron, decades ago termed “los descamisados,” the shirtless ones. Thus, although doing virtually nothing to improve housing and education in the ghettos, basic community lighting and water supplies have been installed, with Cuban medical teams providing mediocre medical services.

Recent events could significantly limit even these basic improvements’ effects on the lives of poor Venezuelans. The fall of oil prices will surely affect the government’s profligate spending. The first indicator of official concern was the Petrocaribe subsidized-petroleum-purchase program, offered to 16 area governments plus selected municipalities.

For now, and perhaps for a year to come, the Chavez regime has sufficient reserves — an estimated $60-70 billion — to maintain domestic spending. Budgetary commitments, however, require an average oil price in excess of $90 per barrel, something most analysts consider unlikely during 2009 and potentially longer.

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There are many options for cutting back spending, but none are attractive to Chavez. For example, heavily subsidized gasoline sells for the equivalent of twelve cents per gallon, giving a huge windfall to domestic buyers and taking a major slice of government revenue. Cutting the subsidy significantly, thereby sharply raising the domestic price of gas, would be a disastrous political move.

#ad#Price freezes on key consumables have driven hundreds of Venezuelan farmers out of business, and forced importation of foodstuffs — which are provided at heavily subsidized prices in the poorest districts. Queues as long as five hours often result, and after waiting, would-be buyers often find rice or sugar or chicken already sold out. Venezuela was once a major producer of beef cattle. No longer: Ranches have been confiscated by the government and overrun by opportunistic campesinos. Mismanagement has decimated the national cattle herd.

Showpiece foreign projects, including refineries in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Paraguay, are being stretched out, embarrassing recipient despots like Daniel Ortega. Years of foreign ventures have drained funds needed for Venezuela’s development, yet another factor favoring major opposition electoral advances on November 23.

Equally important, Chavez will be hard-pressed to continue underwriting foreign elections. In the first proven incident, bagman Guido Antonini broke with the Chavez regime after being apprehended smuggling $800,000 into Buenos Aires, part of a $5 million cash shipment from Caracas in support of last year’s Argentine presidential elections.

Testimony leading to the recent Miami conviction of Venezuelan businessman Franklin Duran identified huge expenditures of Venezuelan funds in elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru, with El Salvador the current target.

Newspaper editor, ex-Communist guerrilla, and former government minister Teodoro Petkoff estimates hardcore support for Chavez at 20 percent. “He peaked when he was reelected in 2006 and has been declining slowly but steadily since,” he says. “The reasons are multiple, but a major one is that the chavistas indulge in obscene, obvious consumption, while little gets done for the people. No schools, little or nothing on shop shelves, huge military expenditures — he has dreams of the re-emergence of the Soviet Union!”

“Hugo Chavez’s weakest point is the man himself,” Petkoff concludes. “He is a psychopath. . . . The problem of Chavez is Chavez.”

In order to fund his grand schemes, Venezuela’s autocrat banked on petroleum prices richly exceeding the recent $140 per barrel highs, often predicting $250, even $300. Current and projected oil prices of $60 or lower deprive him of his most potent political weapon, both at home and in the region.

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The political opposition largely remains in disarray. Aging politicians, remnants of nearly 50 years of mixed democratic rule, fight for their share of power and the spoils that Chavez is hoarding to himself and his military, socialist, and Cuban cohorts.

Fortunately, the professional and intellectual side of the opposition, plus committed cadres of young office-seekers, have injected fresh thinking and selflessness. One significant advance has been an agreement among opposition forces to run a single candidate for most offices. However, the candidate is all too often an old-line hack, with limited integrity and less vision.

#ad#The tide, however, could be turning. There are significant numbers of 30- and 40-year-old opposition candidates. Stalin Gonzalez, 35, is running for mayor of Libertador, one of the five municipalities that constitute metro Caracas. A leader of the student uprisings in December 2007, Gonzalez, with thousands of intrepid comrades, was a key factor in blocking Chavez’s effort to grant himself unlimited presidential terms.

Perhaps the leading example of fresh opposition political leadership is Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of Chacao, the most dynamic of the capital’s municipalities. Lopez, 37, has campaigned tirelessly nationwide for candidates, despite being banned from competing for the mayoralty of the country’s capital conurbation.

In August, he held a 65 percent lead over incumbent chavista mayor Aristobulo Izturiz, but the governing authority disqualified him on false corruption charges, which they refuse to prosecute. Lopez insists, “We won’t give up. But it is not enough to say how bad the government is. We must develop a solid and meaningful program for returning the country to a renewed and revitalized democracy.”

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THE WAY FORWARD

Thinking similarly, Oscar Schemel, head of Hinterlaces strategic planning and polling firm, is forming a representative group of patriotic personalities to develop a common vision for Venezuela. The project, “Utopolis,” is critical to unify the opposition and to provide citizens with a common understanding of what their country can be.

#ad#Domestic events are clearly running against Chavez. Last week, Luis Miquilena, handpicked by Chavez as President of the 1999 National Constitutional Assembly and Minister of Interior & Justice, held a devastating press conference urging Venezuelans to vote against chavista candidates on November 23:

In recent years, the president has placed the country in a trance, one that could very possibly cause us to lose our democracy. He has created an economic crisis that has increased poverty and plunged us into social violence.

The president has imposed aggression, violence, and militarism, in place of promoting the peace that the Constitution of 1999 established as a fundamental principle. He has kidnapped the powers of our national institutions, controlling them totally himself. He seeks to remain forever in power through reelections, contrary to the constitution and against which the people voted on December 2, 2007.

The president fears Venezuelans will vote against him in the elections, because the incapability, waste and corruption of his government have made us lose our most important chance of economic development in the last 40 years, weakened us and left us extremely vulnerable to the worldwide recession.

Nevertheless, despite megalomania, manic depression that requires daily doses of lithium, and a seemingly endless drive to enrich himself and numberless cohorts, Chavez has a powerful charisma, coupled with a sense of when to strike and when to stand down.

When he led a failed coup in 1992, he accepted defeat, “for now.” Less than eight years later, he had served two years in prison; become the revolutionary torch bearer for the leftist San Paolo Forum, founded by Fidel Castro and Brazilian president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva; and been elected president of Venezuela.

Similarly, following the defeat of his constitutional changes last December, Chavez accepted the voters’ verdict “for now” and within nine months promulgated 26 decrees that legalized virtually all the measures that had gone down to popular defeat.

In the run-up to the November 23 elections, his government has declared hundreds of candidates ineligible on bogus corruption charges and threatened to withhold government financial support from states that elect opposition governors.

It gets worse, however: Growing more panicked as election day approaches, the Venezuelan autocrat is threatening to order tanks into the streets, in the event voters reject the Venezuela United Socialist Party and allied candidates.

The fraud potential is staggering, and it is widely feared that massive chavista efforts will deny opposition candidates success. Voting machines and related systems are rigged so that virtually any manipulation is possible. The control center can change results on every machine, “to accommodate requirements,” as one official told me. Moreover, it is possible for authorities to determine for whom any individual has voted in both past and current elections (the technique was demonstrated to me by a former high electoral official).

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Alfredo Weil is the dean of election organization and monitoring in Venezuela, and is widely respected throughout Latin America. Director general of Venezuela’s Supreme Electoral Council from 1974-84 and again in 1993-94, he is a founding director of ESDATA, privately organized to assure clean elections.

Weil puts the case simply: “Voting is a human right, and the challenge is to assure that each vote is impartial, transparent, and secret. This has been enshrined in the United Nations charter, by the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights . . . but it is not honored in Venezuela. Our computerized voting system violates every one of these three basic tenets of fair democratic voting.”

#ad#Weil is confident his organization and thousands of volunteers can capture accurate readings from the country’s voting machines, and ESDATA is committed to making the results known. “But they can manipulate the count during the voting day, thereby affecting the final tally,” he says. “They can spread the word that they know how people vote, thereby destroying the concept of secrecy and intimidating many voters. Unfortunately, there are many ways to commit vote fraud.”

Gerardo Blyde, mayoral candidate of the Caracas municipality of Baruta, forecasts significant opposition victories. However, he believes “the government will make every effort to change the election results. They have done it before, and there is only so much we can do to keep the elections clean. On election day, we need 120,000 poll watchers, but we will only have between 80,000 and 90,000.”

Most opposition observers are cautiously optimistic about their chances. “Chavez is running scared,” comments a distinguished university professor. “He’s not just attacking opposition candidates; he’s publicly condemning members of his own coalition. On top of that, he makes wild threats to not fund states that elect opposition governors. These outbursts only strengthen the opposition.”

The government also blocked former Polish president and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Lech Walesa from attending a symposium, “Democracy: a Matter of the People,” at Universidad Central de Venezuela, the country’s largest public (and traditionally leftist) university.

Strengthened or not, the stakes are high for Venezuela’s opposition, with a variety of political possibilities. Perhaps most likely, Chavez will go along with the results “for now,” and a few months later begin a new and sharply increased fascistic crackdown.

Whatever the outcome, Hugo Chavez will remain Venezuela’s major political force because the disorganization of the opposition remains grave; the diversity of views, great; and the determination to speed Chavez’ exit, minimal.

If the coming elections provide positive results for the opposition, the questions are whether Chavez will accept such a defeat “for now” and, if so, what he might ultimately do in order to maintain his hold on power.

— Geopolitical analyst John R. Thomson recently spent two weeks in Caracas assessing economic and political conditions prior to this month’s elections. He welcomes comments at thomson.john.r@gmail.com .

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