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Venezuela already took a step forward

By Michael Shifter
El Colombiano, October 7, 2012

Una versión en español se encuentra aquí.

Hugo Chavez is far from the candidate he was six years ago. In 2006, he soundly defeated his opposition challenger Manual Rosales. Chavez was then in sound health, his rhetorical powers were at their height, and he had ample resources thanks to high oil prices.

He shrewdly took advantage of an inept and disorganized opposition, and benefited from two foils – US president George W. Bush and Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Both presidents were hardliners who often played perfectly into Chavez’s confrontational style.

Today, Chavez is a diminished figure and has never been more vulnerable. He is ill (though the type of cancer and prognosis remain secret), which has notably affected his presidential campaign this time around. His energy level has declined, his political machinery has weakened.

Venezuela has continued to deteriorate -- reflected in decaying infrastructure, shortages of basic goods, skyrocketing crime, and high inflation. Bush and Uribe are out of office and are no longer easy targets. Barack Obama is harder to attack, and Chavez and Juan Manual Santos enjoy good relations. In the region, Chavez’s political support -- never as strong as commonly thought -- has dissipated further. Increasingly, Venezuelans who had given Chavez the benefit of the doubt no longer do so. They are tired of worsening conditions and have reached their limit.

What has perhaps been most disconcerting for Chavez has been the emergence -- for the first time in his 14-year rule -- of a unified and effective opposition. Henrique Capriles has run a remarkably smart and energetic campaign. He is competing for Chavez’s core constituency, and has admirably resisted succumbing to his taunts and provocations.

Still, the fact that the election appears to be very tight suggests that Chavez hasn’t entirely lost his magic. Such an utterly dismal governance performance and squandered opportunities should, in most circumstances, result in a strong opposition victory.

But Chavez enjoys the many advantages associated with one-man rule. He controls key institutions, including the media, courts, and national electoral council. Chavez also retains a sentimental connection with many Venezuelans. He projects the sense that he is working tirelessly on behalf of the poor. And he has lots of money to spend on social assistance programs.

Whatever happens in today’s election, Venezuela will have taken a step forward. Participation levels on both sides are expected to be high and, even if Chavez wins, a sense of the possibility of change is in the air. If the opposition is smart, that momentum will be sustained. To be sure, Venezuelan society is sharply polarized, but the opposition’s efforts to appeal to Chavez’s base and build bridges with moderate Chavistas augurs well for the nation’s social peace.

It is tempting to contemplate a variety of post-election scenarios – several of them very troubling. It is hard to predict what will happen. But the fact that more and more Venezuelans are looking for change – and a serious alternative has emerged -- offers some grounds for hope.