Gwynne Dyer, Guest Columnist
t is imaginable — not certain, but certainly possible — Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman since 1998, will lose the presidential election on Oct. 7. The most recent opinion polls showed that his challenger, Henrique Capriles, has closed the gap between them to only five per cent or less of the popular vote. If Chavez loses, would he actually hand over power peacefully?
He says he would, of course but he also says that it’s an irrelevant question, since he will surely win. “It is written,” he tells his supporters reassuringly. But it is not. Chavez really could lose this time.
In previous elections, the Venezuelan opposition railed against Chavez’s “socialism” and Marxism and lost. Capriles, by contrast, promises to retain most of Chavez’s social welfare policies that have poured almost $300 billion into programs to raise literacy, improve health care, build housing for the homeless and even subsidize groceries.
Capriles just promises he will spend that money more effectively, with less corruption. A lot of people believe him: being more efficient than Chavez’s ramshackle administration would not be hard.
Moreover, though Chavez’s rule has helped the poor in many ways, they are still poor. Venezuela’s economy has grown far more slowly than those of its South American neighbours, even though it has benefited from big oil exports and a tenfold rise in the world oil price.
Indeed, what growth there has been in Venezuela’s economy under Chavez is due almost entirely to higher oil prices. And while the oil revenues — $980 billion during Chavez’s presidency — can pay for the subsidies, they will never be enough to transform the entire economy.
You can work it out on the back of an envelope. There are almost 30 million Venezuelans. Even if all of that $980 billion had been shared out among them during the past 12 years, they would have got $3,000 per person per year. Since the oil revenue also had to pay for everything from defence to road construction, the real number was more like $1,000 per person per year.
That’s nice to have but it’s not going to transform lives. In fact, many people now feel they are sliding backward again, for inflation has been about 1,000 per cent since 1998, 10 times worse than in Venezuela’s neighbours. And the shelves in the government-subsidized food shops are bare most of the time.
So even Chavez loyalists can be tempted by a politician who promises to keep the subsidies, but would scrap the antique Marxist dogmatism that cripples the economy. Henrique Capriles is exactly that politician. What if he wins?
What would probably happen is a grudging but peaceful hand-over of power. Chavez’s rhetoric is often vicious — he has called Capriles a “pig” and a “fascist” — but unlike the former Communist states of Europe, he has always held real elections.
If he loses this one, he will still know the welfare state he has built will survive his departure. He will be aware his health may not be good enough to sustain him through a long post-election crisis. And for all his bluster about defending the “Bolivarian revolution,” he may actually respect a democratic vote that goes against him.
Whether his colleagues and cronies would feel the same way is another question but they could hardly reject an outcome that Chavez himself accepted. This thing could still end well.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. If you would like to see his column appear in the Ponoka News regularly, please let us know by dropping an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org