Venezuela's right makes a left turn

Conservative politician ­Henrique Capriles is portraying himself as a defender of the ­working class in his ­campaign to ­become ­president. (Rodrigo Abd, AP)

Conservative politician ­Henrique Capriles is portraying himself as a defender of the ­working class in his ­campaign to ­become ­president. (Rodrigo Abd, AP)

The streets of Caracas are lined with posters showing the face of businessman and political leader Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate for the presidency. In one picture, he appears wearing a baseball cap featuring the colours of the country's flag and an open smile, as if to advertise toothpaste. Above it a legend says: "Below and left."

"Below and left" is one of the possible places on the ballot card where voters can mark their choice, but it is something else too: the political space that Capriles seeks to fill to surmount his disadvantage against President Hugo Chavez.

Throughout the campaign, Capriles – a rightist businessman – has presented himself as a progressive man, a politician who tries to recover Chavez's discourse from the opposite side of the street.
Recently, he has sought to reinforce this image by purporting to be a defender of the working class.

Paradoxically, for the first time in a long while, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has a candidate true to its class. He was born in the bosom of two families who own communications media. His adversaries accuse him of belonging to the ultra-rightist group Tradición, Familia y Propiedad (Tradition, Family and Property). He took an active part in the coup against Chavez in 2002.

This sort of political transvestism, with the right posing as a progressive force, is not gratuitous. Venezuela has given birth to a new political culture: half the population agrees with the idea of building a socialist country, against 29% who oppose it. Citizens associate socialism with democracy, equal opportunities, social inclusion, solidarity, co-operation, organisation, participation and, recently, efficiency.

New development
This massive adherence to the socialist cause is a relatively new development. During the 1960s and 1970s it was a blocked idea, one most citizens considered forbidden. But that changed radically in the 2005 presidential campaign when Chavez changed his stance from Bolivarian nationalism to portray himself as a socialist.

The strength of this new political culture and of the strides towards social inclusion made by the Bolivarian government make things difficult for Capriles. He cannot oppose this ideal in public without damaging his chances of victory. He cannot express his political and economic proposals clearly, for he would be rejected. On the contrary, Chavez's view of his nation has become widely accepted, so much so that about two-thirds of the population see him as the future.

The election on October 7 is not only a Venezuelan affair. Its result matters to all of the continent, to the Non-Aligned Movement and to popular movements throughout the world. A Chavez victory will deepen a post-neoliberal, socialist model of development. However, were the opposition to triumph, it would be a tough blow to those countries that seek to leave the Washington Consensus behind or create a new world order beyond United States hegemony. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

Luis Hernandez Navarro is the ­opinion editor of Mexico's La ­Jornada

Chavez's fatherland needs competence, not charisma

As Venezuelans get ready for the most closely fought presidential election of the past 14 years, one question is at the forefront of everyone's mind: Does Hugo Chavez still have it? By "it", I mean his legendary intense and emotional connection with the poor – a kind of attachment that has, for many, a feeling of religious fervour. Of faith.

"Chavez is the only one who has ever really cared about the poor." You hear his supporters say it again and again, with real feeling, and it is the centre of his pitch to voters. The slogan "heart of my fatherland" turns up everywhere, right down to the water bottles given away to keep his supporters hydrated at rallies.

But 14 years on, as even his most hardcore supporters acknowledge, Chavez's experiment in 21st-century socialism is not working. After the chaotic nationalisation of most of the agroindustrial chain, food shortages are rife and various staples are disappearing from shelves. Lines at subsidised government grocery shops are long and scarce commodities sell out almost the second they are delivered.

The only thing that appears to be 21st century about Chavez's 21st-century socialism is the presidential Twitter account. The economy is still run along the rigid lines that crippled Eastern Bloc economies for much of the 20th century. One after another, industries have been nationalised only to become outsized money pits unable to produce the goods needed.

The steel and cement industries cannot produce enough to meet the country's housing needs, electric utilities have brought chronic blackouts and the phone company has failed to deliver adequate internet access. Venezuelans like to joke that Julian Assange passed over Venezuela for asylum because the internet is so slow there. That Venezuela's economy does not grind to a halt, Zimbabwe-style, amid the waste, corruption and mismanagement of incompetent central planning is down to a single word: oil.

But the opposition has united and rallied around Henrique Capriles, an energetic young state governor who has put pragmatism at the centre of his campaign. Capriles cannot match Chavez for charisma and does not try to. After 14 years of deepening economic dysfunction, administrative chaos and dependence on oil, he sensed an opening for a no-nonsense campaign centred on institutionalising the revolution's social advances and sweeping away its legacy of political sectarianism, ideological rigidity and mismanagement.

Capriles senses there is a thirst to move beyond the divisive politics of the Chavez personality cult – that Venezuelans crave the type of minimally competent government they have not had for years and are ready to take a chance on change. – Francisco Toro © Guardian News & Media 2012

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan journalist, political scientist and blogger

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