|Las noticias sobre las elecciones venezolanas han de tener en consideración el agravio comparativo que implica una campaña desigualísima en la que el presidente-candidato posee todos los recursos del quinto productor de petróleo del mundo sin rendirle cuentas a nadie, sin accountability alguna, porque ha destruido o puesto a su servicio a voluntad a las instituciones,, y un candidato opositor atrevido, veraz y honesto que sólo cuenta con el concurso autónomo y libre de millones de personas que lo han seguido y siguen por todo el país. Las urnas y la honestidad del Poder Electoral tienen la palabra.|
The Economist Print Edition
November 30, 2006
A revived opposition faces a popular president armed with almost limitless oil money and several built-in advantages
MATILDE PARRA has every reason to be grateful to Hugo Chávez. She will happily vote for him on December 3rd when the former army officer turned revolutionary socialist hopes to be elected to a further six-year term as Venezuela's president. The co-operative farm near the western city of Barquisimeto Ms Parra belongs to has just received from the government a promised maize-harvesting machine. "He's the best thing in the world, he's really helping the poor," she says as she buys a red baseball cap adorned with the president's face to match her red chavista T-shirt, and heads for Mr Chávez's final campaign rally in the centre of Caracas.
The president, who has been in power since 1999, seems assured of victory. Most opinion polls give him a commanding lead of around 20 points over his only serious rival, Manuel Rosales. Nonetheless, Mr Rosales, the centre-left governor of the western state of Zulia, has done a remarkable job of pulling together the fractious opposition. He has attracted the biggest opposition demonstrations since a recall referendum in August 2004 failed to unseat the president, sparking angry—but never substantiated—claims of vote fraud.
But Mr Chávez has some powerful advantages. He is an instinctive political communicator with an almost magical rapport with his supporters. He is reaping the benefits of a huge oil windfall: although output has fallen, higher prices have quadrupled the value of Venezuela's oil exports since 1998. The economy is growing at 9% a year. Mr Chávez has channelled some of the oil money to social programmes (called "missions") which provide health care, education and subsidised food in poor areas that were previously neglected by a creaking welfare state.
The president's "Bolivarian Revolution", named for South America's independence hero, has erased the distinction between himself, the government and the state. Mr Chávez doles out public money in return for political loyalty.
When Ms Parra's group squatted on 240 hectares (590 acres) of canefields belonging to a private sugar-mill, they were helped by the National Guard and the land-reform agency. Since none was a farm-worker, they were given training by one of the government's politically-inspired missions. Credit and machinery followed, albeit slowly: of the 400 squatters only 60 have stuck it out.
The government expects something in return. A bus, paid for out of public funds by the local chavista mayor, delivered the co-op's members to Caracas for Mr Chávez's rally. Many government employees—whose total numbers have almost doubled since 1998 to some 2m—were obliged to attend or risk the sack. At the rally a dozen young men on white motorbikes belonging to a provincial police force roared up and down, also dressed in red T-shirts with chavista slogans. "We're just following orders," said one of them.
Mr Chávez promises if he wins to begin a "new phase of the revolution" in which what he calls "21st-century socialism" will be consolidated. This looks as though it would mean more of the same: government help for workers' co-ops and the like, as well as for the missions.
The president will "push forward his project to control society via a form of totalitarianism," says Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor who gave up his own presidential ambitions to support Mr Rosales. He accuses Mr Chávez of politicising the armed forces, using education as a tool for indoctrination and bringing even sport and culture under state control. Mr Petkoff does not anticipate big surprises, such as the abolition of private property, but he worries about economic mismanagement, inflation and industrial decline.
Mr Rosales has seemingly failed to capitalise on widespread discontent over crime, unemployment and corruption. Venezuelans who vote for Mr Chávez give him credit for a booming economy and the missions. Despite his overarching power, such is their faith in him that they tend to blame others, such as state governors or mayors, for the country's ills.
Until a few months ago, the opposition had not decided whether or not to take part in the election, since it doubted that it would be clean. A minority still believes Mr Chávez can win only by fraud. Many Venezuelans distrust the government-dominated electoral authority. But it has made efforts to accommodate its critics. Mr Rosales's aides say they will be able to detect any manipulation of the vote.
The opposition's biggest fear concerns the use of fingerprint machines in conjunction with electronic voting. Their ostensible purpose is to prevent multiple voting, but they are "neither necessary nor particularly useful", according to Pedro Nikken of Ojo Electoral, an independent watchdog. Rightly or wrongly, many Venezuelans believe that because of the machines the vote will not be secret.
The government has already made public a list of the several million people who signed the petition calling for the recall referendum, using it to deny jobs and government services to "counter-revolutionaries". In these circumstances, any belief that the vote might not be secret seems likely to hurt Mr Rosales.
"Our instructions are to vote, or we'll lose our jobs," said a doctor working for the government's Barrio Adentro primary-health-care mission. Asked if that meant voting for Mr Chávez, she said there were "intelligence techniques" that might allow the government to know if she did not.
All the indications are that Mr Chávez does not intend this weekend's election to be his last. He has proposed to hold a referendum in 2010 to abolish a clause in the constitution, which he himself introduced, restricting presidents to two consecutive six-year terms. It appears that the opposition will be tolerated, so long as it does not threaten to take power. "There is no room in Venezuela for any project other than the Bolivarian revolution," Mr Chávez told the rally.
However, even many of his own supporters do not want a lifetime president in the mould of his friend, Cuba's Fidel Castro. "If he wants to set up a dictatorship like in Cuba the people themselves won't let him," said Fermi González, a mechanic who says he will vote for Mr Chávez. But as long as the oil money lasts, the president will be hard to defeat.