5 Minute Tute: Hugo Chavez

What has Mr Hugo Chavez done for Venezuela over the last fourteen years?

When Chavez came to power, almost 50% of Venezuelans lived in poverty. By 2008 this had fallen to under 28%. Income inequality has also been significantly reduced. Critics argue that these advances are to be expected during a sustained boom in the price of oil, Venezuela’s main source of income. They have come at the price of a steady erosion in civil liberties and the concentration of ever more power in the hands of the president. Economic growth, which has been erratic, has coincided with a decline in productive employment and is ever more dependent on oil, which now represents more than 95% of export earnings.

To what extent was Mr Chavez’s re-election to the Presidency this week due to his own popularity?

The president himself admitted during his election campaign that his government had been deficient in many areas, including employment, housing and infrastructure. It is common to find supporters of Chavez who criticise the government’s performance but do not blame the president himself. Chavez has a remarkable rapport with ordinary Venezuelans, and particularly the poor, who see him as ‘one of us’ – a man who rose from humble origins, who speaks their language and who has their interests at heart. They are therefore inclined to blame the problems they face in their daily lives on ministers, state governors, mayors, the police and other functionaries, rather than on the president. 

How clean were the elections?

 A small minority on the fringes of the opposition insists that the process is inherently fraudulent, although they have been unable to show how such a fraud would occur. The executive secretary of the opposition MUD coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, says the election was ‘free but not fair’ –  the votes were accurately counted, but the government’s abuse of state resources during the campaign and its virtual stranglehold on broadcast media made it extremely hard for MUD candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski to compete. The scales were further tilted in Chavez’ favour by intimidation of state employees, many of whom fear to lose their jobs if they vote the ‘wrong’ way. The use of finger-print readers connected to the voting machines led many to conclude that their vote was not secret.

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 Did Henrique Capriles Radonski of the Democratic Unity coalition ever stand a chance?

Some polling organisations projected a very close result, or even a Capriles victory, but their conclusions appear in retrospect to have been based on a faulty analysis of the data – in particular the percentage of undecided voters and their likely behaviour. Capriles rose steadily in the polls during the campaign, whereas the president’s support remained static, but the rate of the former’s ascent was insufficient to close the gap by election day. The opposition has nonetheless gained over 2 million votes since the last presidential election, confirming a trend of recent years whereby Chavez’ advantage over his opponents has been gradually reduced.

What will it take to unseat Mr Chavez?

Many in the opposition fear that the task is impossible, given his charisma, the elimination of all institutional checks and balances and the fact that he is able to spend the national budget with absolute discretion and almost no transparency. Some believe that only his death – perhaps from the cancer that was diagnosed in mid-2011 – or an unforeseen crisis of major dimensions would suffice to remove him from power. A sudden drop in the price of oil, and hence in the government’s ability to use state spending to bolster its support, might affect his popularity, but autocratic governments are by their nature less susceptible to collapse under the pressure of economic crises.