Jorge G. Castañeda
Hugo Faces His Toughest Test
Dec. 4, 2006 issue - Next Sunday Hugo Chávez will put his electoral charmed life on the line. Since 1998, when he was elected president of Venezuela in a landslide, he's never lost a national vote. Chávez won re-election in 1999, won the referendum on the country's new constitution in 2000—and most recently, in August 2004, he prevailed in a nationwide vote on whether he should remain in power. But there's been attrition over the years: Chávez has obtained smaller percentages of the vote with each successive election and, most importantly, turnout has been shrinking steadily; in the 2004 plebiscite, many estimated it at less than 30 percent.
The Dec. 3 election may be his toughest test yet. Finally, the Venezuelan opposition has united behind a single candidate—Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia, the country's second largest state. And the tune he's singing is playing well with the voters: Chávez is not solving the country's social ills; he is misspending the nation's immense oil revenue on corrupt, pharaonic projects. Instead, according to Rosales, the oil wealth should be handed out to each Venezuelan through a sort of "black gold" credit card that would let each citizen decide what he wants to spend this bonus on. Handing out money this way, instead of spending it on infrastructure or education, for example, might not be the wisest idea around—although the late Milton Friedman espoused it indirectly in the 1970s as sort of negative income tax for oil-producing countries.
Polls, which are always a bit problematic in Latin America, tend to show Chávez leading by between 5 and 20 percentage points, depending on the survey. Those most favorable to Rosales place him between five and 10 points behind—and a couple of others, including one carried out by the U.S. firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, show that the challenger has pulled close to Chávez, or is even leading. In Latin America, voters often refuse to tell pollsters how they're going to vote. That tradition could be interpreted to mean that Morales's strength is somewhat underestimated. The withdrawal of marginal candidate and TV comedian Benjamin Rausseo, and his decision to back Rosales, has given the challenger a fillip of momentum—and should add a couple of percentage points to his vote total.
If Chávez is re-elected, it will be because Venezuela's poor (representing 60 percent of the country's 25 million population) still approve of his populist policies. When surveyed, respondents give the president high approval marks in just about every category: the direction of Venezuela's foreign policy, the effectiveness of economic programs and optimism about the future. Chávez's humiliating defeat in his quest for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council does not seem to have hurt him. In a sense, this support might be perceived as a paradoxical condemnation of Chavez's policies: he likes the poor, which is why they support him, and he tries to help them with his social policies. But poverty has not really diminished in Venezuela since 2000, so the poor also remain extremely numerous. Like so many populists in Latin America, Hugo Chávez loves the poor as they are, and wants to keep them that way.
All of this explains perhaps why the true battle might well be waged after the vote, and on the international front. If Chávez wins by a large margin—getting, say, about 6 million votes compared with 4 million for Rosales—all of the relatively valid accusations by the opposition of electoral fraud will come to naught. International observers of all colors and stripes present in Venezuela for the vote will take note of the protests and validate some of them. But given the gaping vote differential, they will conclude that the discrepancies were not egregious enough to invalidate the election. This is roughly what occurred in the referendum of August 2004.
Conversely, if Rosales ends up not more than 5 percentage points behind the president, the opposition's protests might have some effect. That's because Chávez has manipulated the system to benefit his candidacy: he's stacked the electoral authority with his own party people, he's largely stifled the opposition media and the government bought the U.S.-based electronic voting company that will tabulate the nationwide vote. Those factors, combined with a tight vote, could prompt the international groups—including The Carter Center, European Union and the Organization of American States —to declare that the election was illegitimate.
Many of Chávez's opponents at home and abroad are hoping that scenario plays out. Having international observers disqualify the election would allow the United States and others to set in motion a series of mechanisms at the Organization of American States designed to strengthen democracy and avoid a return to authoritarian rule in Latin America. These instruments are relatively new and untried. Many countries would not go along—but the Venezuelan dynamic would have changed immensely. Chávez has made his acts and antics in the international arena his leitmotif. What a paradox it would be for that very arena to be the scene of his eventual demise.