February 20, 2012


Venezuela's Hugo Chavez faces an uprising at the ballot box (Jackson Diehl, 2/20/12, Washington Post)

The opposition Capriles now heads has learned lessons that might benefit some of the revolutionaries of the Middle East. It tried and failed to oust Chavez with mass demonstrations and strikes; it foolishly boycotted elections it believed would be unfair; it indulged in endless internal quarrels. The result was the entrenchment of a strongman who has thoroughly wrecked what was once Latin America's richest country and who now presides over the highest inflation and murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, shortages of basic goods and power, and a drug-trafficking industry whose kingpins include the defense minister.

The opposition could have turned savage; instead it grew civil. Capriles, lanky and somewhat wonky, has insisted on pursuing power peacefully and by electoral means, even when the playing field is tilted. In 2004 Chavez jailed him on bogus charges; he won acquittal and in 2008 stunned Chavez's hand-picked candidate for governor in Miranda, the populous state that surrounds Caracas. Now some pollsters are giving him even-money odds of beating Chavez himself, if the votes are counted fairly. His campaign has focused not on the caudillo but on the country -- how he would begin to piece the economy and democratic institutions back together, while preserving social programs for the poor. His model, he says, is Brazil's social democratic hero, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Chavez has responded by importing the rhetoric of the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, whom he recently welcomed to Caracas. He has tried to seize the ballot papers from the opposition primary, probably in order to identify and punish those who participated; such an operation targeted signers of a 2004 recall petition.

Meanwhile he is pouring borrowed money into the economy in a frantic effort to buy back support. The government budget calls for a 46 percent increase in spending this year. The state oil company borrowed $17.5 billion last year and is expected to sell another $12 billion to $15 billion in bonds. There is also a $30 billion credit line from China, to be paid back with discounted oil sometime in the future.

For Chavez, the future beyond October may not matter much. Operated on for cancer in Cuba last June, he has never disclosed the details of his illness; more than one foreign report suggests that he suffers from an incurable malignancy.
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Posted by at February 20, 2012 6:35 AM

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