Venezuela’s hyperpolarized politics have bled into our own ugly discourse and, as usual, progressives are reacting to the messaging on the right; they say Chávez is a tyrant, he hates democracy, he killed Santa — and we dutifully debunk the charges.
But when it’s all about Hugo Chávez, it puts the burden on his supporters; they have to explain every hyperbolic phrase that passes his lips and every move he makes to advance what is in fact a dramatic — and predictably painful for some — social and economic restructuring of Venezuelan society.
It’s tiresome and it puts those who don’t automatically hate him on the defensive. That’s why, as we edge closer to December’s Venezuelan elections, it’s time to start talking about Venezuelan politics in the same way we talk about politics in Canada or Europe or anywhere else. There are always at least two sides in democratic contests, and there are policy differences that get voters’ attention. But we never hear about those things in relation to Venezuela — it’s like Chávez is governing in a vacuum.
The most obvious thing missing from the mainstream discourse is the Venezuelan opposition. But its members deserve some attention because while they’re portrayed generically as members of “civil society” — and often as champions of democracy — in fact they’re a deeply unpopular group of plutocrats with very little support among the majority of the Venezuelan population.
A recent poll — an opposition poll conducted by Hinterlaces (translation courtesy of Oilwars) — showed that 55 percent of the population plans to vote for Chávez in the upcoming elections, a number consistent with the 55-60 percent of the vote he’s gotten in his previous three contests.
It’s tempting to focus on that number, but look at some other numbers in the poll — the numbers on Chávez’s top challengers among Venezuela’s opposition.
The candidate that came in second in the poll was Zulia state Gov. Manuel Rosales, with 7 percent — an eighth of Chávez’s support. Broadcaster Julio Borges came in third with 5 percent, and businessman Roberto Smith with 2 percent. Every one of the opposition candidates was beaten by “someone new” (17 percent) and “none of the above” (10 percent).
So the top three candidates after Chávez, combined, have the support of 14 percent of the electorate — about a quarter of Hugo Chávez’s popular support. (Another recent poll, by Datanalisis, had Chávez at 59 percent, Rosales at 9 percent and Borges at 8 percent.)
Let’s look at negatives. Twenty-six percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Hugo Chávez — he’s a polarizing figure. But just under 40 percent dislike Rosales, almost 50 percent disapprove of Borges, and Roberto Smith, with one-thirtieth of Chávez’s support, has the same negatives as the president.
So who are these guys? Who are the great democratic freedom fighters in Venezuela?
Manuel Rosales is the governor of the northwestern state of Zulia, where he’s quite popular. Part of that popularity, ironically, comes from his having enacted some social programs similar to Chávez’s own.
Rosales has been accused of being a separatist — Zulia has a rich history of separatism going back to the early 19th century. About 40 percent of the country’s oil lies beneath Zulia. When William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, referred to Rosales’ state as the “Republic of Zulia” and said the United States would be willing to cut a trade deal with Rosales, it caused a stir. Brownfield later insisted that the comments had been made in jest.
But while he’s popular in his home state, he’ll never be able to live down the fact that he was a crucial supporter of the 2002 coup. Rosales — whom the editors of the Wall Street Journal call a Jeffersonian democrat — signed the infamous Carmona Decree, which dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the attorney general, the general comptroller, and the governors and mayors elected during Chávez’s presidency. Rosales signed as a “representative of the state governors.” He’s the only vocal opposition governor in the country.
Although he polls a bit lower than Rosales, Julio Borges is considered by many to be the strongest opposition candidate. The former TV show host — a center-right candidate — spearheaded the first petition drive to recall Chávez and led a march through Caracas to present the signatures to election authorities. Borges came out against other opposition leaders when they called for an election boycott, and has said that it’s a waste of time to base a campaign solely on Chávez’s supposed faults. The opposition, said Borges, has to engage with the Venezuelan people.
Borges’ problem is that he’s seen as far removed from the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. The opposition pollster who conducted the study, Oscar Schemel, said that Borges “is seen as more ‘opposition’ than all the candidates, identified with the rich, those who have money and very far from those of humble origins.”
Roberto Smith is a youngish businessman — a tech guy — and a former minister of transport and communication under Carlos Andrés Pérez. He was part of the economic team that designed Venezuela’s “shock therapy” reforms in the late 1980s, which were deeply unpopular (they led to the deadly Caracazo riots, which left over a thousand Venezuelans dead in 1989). He’s considered the furthest to the right of all the opposition candidates. Running as a devoted neoliberal in Latin America today is like running for office in Alabama on a platform of flag-burning and teen abortion on demand — it just doesn’t jibe with Venezuelans’ values.
The leading opposition candidates agreed to a primary earlier this year, and all except Smith pledged to support the eventual winner.
Dick Morris, the former Clinton advisor who’s now a conservative pundit and political hack, was hired to consult with the opposition in February. He took a look at the field of candidates and stated the obvious: None of them have a chance of unseating Chávez in the December election. He recommended they find a political outsider who comes from a humble background to challenge Chávez’s populism.
Just two weeks later, Benjamín Rausseo, a 46-year-old comedian from an impoverished family, who calls himself the “Count of Guacharo,” surprised Venezuela by throwing his hat in the ring. No polls have been released since he announced his candidacy.
That’s the opposition. And while critics of Chávez, like Javier Corrales, point out that 30 percent of Venezuela’s poor don’t support the president as evidence of … something, the leading opposition candidates’ 14 percent combined polling shows that they have little support outside of Venezuela’s traditional ruling elite.
The other thing that’s missing from the discussion are the issues. It’s entirely likely that Hugo Chávez’s calling Bush an asshole and buddying up with Fidel Castro alienates some Venezuelans — less than a third identify themselves with Chávez’s party. But in the end, Venezuelans — like Brits, Australians or Germans — will ultimately cast their votes on the issues.
In March, Consultadores 21, another public opinion firm associated with Venezuela’s opposition, released a poll asking Venezuelans their opinion on a wide range of issues.
They found that Chávez got middling marks for tackling some of the country’s most persistent problems; just under half of those surveyed approved of his handling of security and his efforts to rein in corruption — both chronic conditions.
When asked if they thought Chávez was doing a good job tackling other issues, these were the results:
- Education: 69.4 percent approved
- Housing: 65.3 percent approved
- Health care: 65.2 percent approved
- Purchasing power: 54 percent approved
- Employment: 53.6 percent approved
Chávez scored high marks on these issues — approval rates that most politicians would envy — but ultimately, as George Herbert Walker Bush learned in 1992, it’s the economy, stupid. Which brings us to another set of data from the opposition — in this case from the virulently anti-Chávez Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce (Vencham), based on research by the polling firm Datos (translation again courtesy of OilWars).
It crunched the economic data from 2005 and concluded — no doubt to Vencham’s chagrin — that in addition to an “increase in social spending and social investment,” unemployment was down, there was a “real increase in the minimum wage and improvements in other benefits,” and interest rates fell in 2005.
Venezuelans’ purchases of consumer goods — supposedly the ultimate sign of a healthy society — is up by 16 percent since Chávez took office — the highest level since the 1980s — and almost six in ten Venezuelans had either benefited directly from Venezuela’s social “missions” or knew someone who had (including two-thirds of those in the bottom 60 percent of the economy).
In terms of income (including non-cash income), not everyone did that well in Venezuela’s booming economy. Almost a quarter of those in the lower middle class saw their incomes stagnate. It was the group that didn’t have the clout to demand more cash from their employers in an expanding economy but who weren’t poor enough to see gains from Venezuela’s social programs.
But a majority of Venezuelans — the bottom 60 percent (58 percent to be exact) of the income distribution — saw stunning gains. In 2004, their real income grew by 30 percent, and last year by another 16 percent. This is the poor majority that Hugo Chávez promised to help when he was elected.
Taken together, these numbers explain why Venezuelans’ confidence in their economy is at its highest level since 1988 and the second highest since Datos started measuring it in 1982 (and more than double what it was before Chávez took power in 1998).
All of this is missing from the mainstream discourse about Venezuela, but it shouldn’t be. In December, when Venezuelans go to the polls, they won’t cast their vote for Chávez because he ridicules the Bush administration, or against him because some right-wing blogger says Chávez is carrying Fidel Castro’s alien love child. Like the citizens of any democracy, they’ll vote according to their perceived interests, and absent some tectonic shift in the electoral landscape, they’ll elect Hugo Chávez for a third term. Looking at his opposition, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, after this story was complete, Venezuela’s opposition leaders announced that they would call off the planned primary and back Manuel Rosales. Benjamín Rausseo and Roberto Smith pledged to remain in the race as independents.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.