The presidential elections are a truly national event in Venezuela. There are rallies to attend, public statements and press releases by the candidates, mini-newspapers containing plans for the next six years of government… and everyone has an opinion.
The posters are the easiest to spot. On every street corner, two faces are prevalent: Hugo Chavez, and his main opponent, Capriles Radonski. Chavez, corazon de mi patria. Heart of my country. Capriles, hay un camino. There is a way. Where this way will lead us, exactly, we are not told.
With just two weeks to go until voting takes place, the candidate who tops the polls is difficult to miss. Hugo Chavez is a larger-than-life character, and has become well-known for his statements denouncing, imperialism, capitalism and US foreign policy. The man who famously called George W Bush ‘Mr Danger’ for his murderous policies of invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq looks to be on course for yet another election victory on 7 October, but what about Capriles? The Roundtable of Democratic Unity [MUD] coalition he represents is looking far from united; just two weeks ago, four organizations withdrew their support for the opposition candidate after leaked documents revealed the neoliberal agenda of his economic policies. But what are his main campaign policies, and how has he gone about communicating them to the Venezuelan people? Does he have the potential to cause an upset?
According to articles in mainstream Western media, Capriles is a ‘centre-left progressive’, and indeed, this seems to be the way he is attempting to present himself to voters. Instead of attacking the Misiones (missions) introduced by the Chavez government to tackle healthcare and education, Capriles has recognized the immense popularity they enjoy with the millions of ordinary Venezuelan people who run them at a local level and benefit from them. So Capriles has decided that, if elected, he will keep the Misiones in place.
If only he were telling the truth. On 23 August, an internal MUD document was leaked to the Venezuelan media, revealing his economic plans. The MERCAL Misiones, government-subsidized supermarkets offering families basic foods for a fraction of their usual price, are among the targets; food subsidies would be decreased by 60 per cent over the next three years. The Gran Mision Vivienda, which aims to build two million houses and also funds poorer sections of society to build their own housing, is to be ended. I have been extremely impressed by the fast and efficient Metro service around Caracas, on which, as a disabled person, I can travel for free – as can my brother, as someone helping me. Under Capriles, however, subsidized travel will be taken out of service, and standard prices will be increased by 5 per cent every four months in several cities.
Even before the leaked documents, it may have been difficult for voters to believe claims that he would keep in place Misiones which would never have existed without the actions of the Chavez government he is so intent on attacking. A march of hundreds of thousands which took place on Saturday in the capital, Caracas, and was dubbed ‘Misiones con Chavez’ in support of his re-election bid, seems to be a case in point. Similarly large mobilizations have taken place in the cities of Merida and Trujillo in recent days, attracting numbers that the opposition simply cannot.
Rather than policies, however, it seems to be Chavez’ personality that Capriles really dislikes, so perhaps we should analyze the latter’s own background in order to understand where he is coming from. In 2002, during the coup which ousted Chavez from power for a grand total of two days, Capriles was serving as mayor of Baruta. On 12 April, the Baruta police arrested the Minister of the Interior, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin. On the same day, Capriles was part of a crowd in Baruta that attacked the Cuban embassy, cutting off water and electricity, destroying vehicles parked outside and refusing to allow the Cuban ambassador to leave. Chavez has often been criticized for his ties with the Cuban government, which has resulted in such ‘atrocities’ as thousands of Cuban doctors providing free healthcare for the poorest sections of Venezuelan society through the Mision Barrio Adentro. Of course, attacking the embassy of any country is illegal under international law, but Capriles refused to accept responsibility, claiming that he helped to prevent further violence. After a lengthy investigation and more than one arrest, he was cleared of all charges under a government amnesty in December 2007.
It doesn’t add up to a record to be proud of. Nevertheless, Capriles is determined to get his message out. Hugo Chavez may have Plan Carabobo, his proposal for the next six years of the Bolivarian revolution, but Capriles has his Plan Venezuela, and he seems unwilling to give up without a fight. Indeed, that is what many are now concerned about: as the April 2002 coup and the oil bosses’ strike in December of that year show, the opposition is not averse to using extra-constitutional methods to achieve its objectives. As an electoral victory for the opposition becomes increasingly unlikely – a recent survey of opinion polls from August and the first week of September gave Chavez an average of 51 per cent support, but Capriles only 35 per cent – there are worries that the opposition may decide to refuse to accept the results of the election.
In a speech delivered in Caracas last Thursday, however, Capriles claimed that he was still confident of his chances.
‘...and we are going to see the victory of Plan Carabo- err... Plan Venezuela!’
It was a slip of the tongue, but perhaps, for once, Capriles was closer to the truth than he would like to admit.