WOULD SIMÓN BOLÍVAR, Latin America’s Liberator, recognise the edifice being built in his name? President Hugo Chávez’s idea of a Bolivarian Revolution, “21st Century Socialism”, has a wide appeal well beyond Venezuela, but what it genuinely owes – has ever owed – to Bolívar’s radical democratic, anti-imperialist tradition is highly arguable. And the Chávez rhetoric has been deeply tarnished after nearly 14 years in power by a creaking, inefficient nationalised, Soviet-like economy, corruption and authoritarianism. It is sustained by a seemingly endless supply of oil.
A frailer Chávez, who has been through three cancer operations since June 2011, on Sunday faces his fourth, and most closely fought, presidential election. He leads in the polls over Henrique Capriles, an energetic and pragmatic young state governor who appeals strongly to a middle class deeply antagonistic to Chávez, but the undecided could still carry the day for the challenger. He represents the first credible threat to Chávez in a generation, promising to copperfasten the revolution’s social advances while abandoning its legacy of political sectarianism, authoritarianism, ideological rigidity and mismanagement. And he has made the rampant violence in the country with one of the highest murder and kidnapping rates in the world a central issue.
There are signs that despite the undoubted advances in health and education, and the substantial reduction in poverty levels, even some of Chávez’s most ardent supporters are losing their ardour. Within the ruling circles there are tensions between centralisers around the leader, and those who want to see decision-making radically devolved to communities. Health reform, the Barrio Adentro programme that saw the creation of thousands of free public clinics in poor neighbourhoods, is in trouble. Food supplies are stretched, lines at subsidised government grocery shops, long. The oil is not enough.
The election has a geopolitical significance well beyond Venezuela. The continent’s politically predominant left has polarised between supporters of a Chávez-Castro axis, encouraged by Venezuelan oil money and Cuban doctors, and those more inclined to an accommodation with both neo-liberal economics and their US neighbour, aligned with Brazil’s former president Lula. Chávez’s associations with regimes like Iran and Belarus, with rebels in Colombia, and his Russian arms sales, would make a realignment most welcome to many of his neighbours.