Beyond the Venezuelan Elections

(International Relations and Security Network, 27/11/2006)


As the Venezuelan presidential campaigns come to a close, observers - ranging from US leaders in Washington to energy sector investors and geopolitical analysts worldwide - speculate about the future of Venezuela under yet another Chavez presidential term versus a country led by the Venezuelan opposition. Manuel Rosales, the governor of Venezuela’s Zulia state, managed to do what others could not. He united Venezuela’s opposition, placing hope in the hearts of millions of Venezuelans who demand a change. But it may not be enough to dislodge Chavez from power.


Rosales, more than any other opposition candidate, has raised questions in the minds of Chavez supporters that Venezuela’s next president must answer. If Chavez wins, he will be under pressure to prove Rosales wrong. If he cannot, his presidency may be shorter than he thinks.


Domestic spending


The number one criticism of the Chavez government is that the president is spending Venezuela’s oil wealth on other nations and on his personal agenda, not on Venezuelans. Yet before campaigning brought these issues to light, Chavez announced a flurry of deals that directly addressed this sore spot.


On 6 September, Chavez and Bank of China president Li Lihui announced the creation of a US$5 billion fund for Venezuelan infrastructure development.. The fund will help build railways, roads and an automobile assembly plant. China will put US$3 billion into the fund, while Venezuela will supply the difference.


Weeks later, Chavez created a US$2 billion development fund with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on 18 September. This agreement follows previous agreements to install a tractor factory, build approximately 10,000 low-income homes and install an Iranian car assembly plant.


Just after the Iranian deal, Chavez flew to Paria peninsula in Sucre, one of Venezuela’s poorest states. Upon arrival, he laid the first stone in a 17,300 hectare industrial energy plant. The plant will serve as the first step in a transnational pipeline Chavez plans to extend all the way to Argentina. The construction of this plant will deliver hundreds of jobs to an economically stagnant region of Venezuela.


These deals in infrastructure, oil and gas, and housing underline Chavez’s tendency to follow through on his sweeping announcements. Yet his rhetoric often gets ahead of his actions. It is a gap that has been expertly targeted by Venezuela’s great hope, Rosales.


The opposition unites


Rosales has united the Venezuelan opposition for the first time since Chavez came to power in February 1999. During the 2002 coup d'etat, when Chavez was jailed and on the brink of death, it was a split in the opposition that gave his supporters enough space to swing regional support against the newly installed government.


Divisions between the Venezuelan opposition often appear deeper and more emotional than those between Chavez supporters and his critics.


Rosales became the governor of Venezuela’s energy-rich Zulia state by beating a Chavez-supported candidate. Throughout his political career, he has never lost an election. The strength of his candidacy and ability to negotiate compromise with the leaders of the various factions of Venezuela’s opposition has created a united front against Chavez.


The presidential contender has targeted Venezuela’s poor, the core of Chavez’s support group. His populist speeches appeal to their desire for more state support. Rosales is very much a populist, but his plans are leveled on a more moderate political field.


He has no dreams of a revolution, just catchy ideas like an ATM debit card that Venezuelan families can use to withdraw money directly from state coffers.


He will reduce taxes, place more control in the hands of local government and revitalize Venezuela’s downtrodden private sector. Rosales’ plan to decentralize Venezuela’s economy is perhaps the most important plank of his platform. Venezuelan foreign direct investment does not exist beyond the energy sector. Rosales desperately wants to make the rest of Venezuela’s economy attractive to investors.


Yet, despite his impressive campaign, polls continue to show Rosales behind Chavez. But the polls themselves are erroneous, adding mystery to reality as the 3 December vote approaches.


Beyond the elections


On 4 November, Rosales led a 26 kilometer march that united 41 organizations and political parties under one leader. Thousands gathered in one of the largest peaceful political rallies in Caracas. The march was a tangible sign of the strength of Venezuela’s united opposition.


Under Rosales, the opposition has uncovered corruption, nepotism, overspending on international ventures that brought nothing to Venezuela, and the failure of various social programs. In short, Rosales has pointed out that Chavez has done little to improve the life of Venezuela’s poor in nearly eight years in office.


He has raised the question of whether Chavez is actually able to govern. Many international observers agree that the president is a charismatic leader and able to win over every individual in a small group meeting. But when it comes to governing the country, he is a failure.


The investment deals he has brought to the country are too little too late. Caracas’ slums are larger than ever, and his development programs barely extend beyond urban centers.


These criticisms and more sit before Chavez like a basket of snakes he has managed to keep under cover until now. If elected president for another six-year term, Chavez must turn a corner and prove to his dwindling group of supporters and to the rest of Venezuelans that he can govern.


His deals with China, Iran and others may be a good start, but he has a long way to go. If nothing else, Rosales has forced that issue to light, and even that is a major win for the opposition. Even if it does not win the presidency, Venezuela’s opposition has won back some respect.


The pressure now is on Chavez to prove that he is not as corrupt as every other Venezuelan president before him. If he is not convincing, Chavez may not serve even half of his next term in office. And his demise will be anything but peaceful.