Chávez candidates spark militarisation fears


INCREASINGLY CONFIDENT of winning October’s presidential election, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has been accused of seeking to militarise his government by selecting military men ahead of civilians to run as government candidates in state elections to be held in December.

Last week, Chávez confirmed eight influential former officers would stand as government candidates in state governorship races, along with two civilians. The move is evidence of the growing prominence of serving and former officers within his self-styled socialist Bolivarian Revolution.

Officers linked to the president have secured greater influence by taking strategic positions in the state oil company, tax service and infrastructure ministry, as well as defence and intelligence. The move has drawn criticism from the opposition and former allies.

Former “chavista” Gustavo Mujica of the Movement Towards Socialism said the president was seeking to “impose” the military on the governorships which would represent “a clear regression to a militarised Venezuela”. Before being elected president in 1998, Chávez served in the army, rising to lieutenant colonel. He frequently appears in uniform and has lavished funds on the military.

With just eight weeks before voting in the presidential race, Chávez said on Thursday that a US citizen had been arrested trying to illegally enter the country from Colombia. According to the president, the man’s passport has stamps for Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and he tried to destroy a notebook with geographical co-ordinates when detained. “He has the look of a mercenary. We are interrogating him,” he told supporters at a rally.

During the campaign Chávez and his supporters have hinted the opposition is planning a coup should it fail to prevent him winning another six-year term.

“This [arrest] obliges us to sound the alarm,” he warned. “The losers have shown they are capable of anything. But I warn them – don’t even think about destabilising the country.”

Chávez was briefly ousted in a US-supported coup in 2002 and since then has claimed to have found evidence of plots designed to remove him from power.

He has accused his centre-right opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski – whom he has called a “low-life pig” – of representing the interests of Venezuela’s foreign enemies. The increasingly nasty and ruthless nature of the campaign has been reflected in the use by both sides of wildly divergent opinion polls.

Some polling organisations linked to the opposition show Capriles holding a slim lead over Chávez, while companies linked to his regime put the incumbent’s support near 30 per cent.

But some traditional pollsters show Chávez holding a 15-20-point lead over his challenger. One survey last week showed the president’s support at 57.2 per cent with just 33.3 per cent of respondents saying they intended to vote for Capriles.

Chávez has set as his aim victory by a 30-point margin over his opponent and has already come close to claiming that victory.

“It is practically impossible to make up a gap of 20 points in two months,” he claimed last week.

Campaigning hard after recently declaring himself free of the cancer detected in June of last year, the president told reporters that he would like a rest, believing “there is life beyond politics”.

However, he said he needed six more years in power “to give this revolution the characteristic of irreversibility, so there can be no going back”.

Despite his apparent good health on the campaign trail, rumours continue to circulate about the true state of his cancer in absence of any detailed medical reports from his Cuban doctors.

Chávez is running on his record of redistributing Venezuela’s oil wealth to the country’s poor by creating a series of social programmes and nationalising large parts of the private sector.

Capriles has sought to base his campaign on fears over personal security stemming from a soaring crime wave and growing evidence of economic mismanagement.

Despite high prices for its oil exports, Venezuela is experiencing shortages of basic food items such as milk, forcing shoppers to queue up outside government-subsidised supermarkets.

Capriles has accused the president of “painting a country that does not exist” and blamed him for the mismanagement that has devastated domestic food production. Despite its tropical climate and available arable land, Venezuela’s food production has declined dramatically since Chávez came to power, leaving the country dependent on imports for over 70 per cent of food needs. “They [the government] cannot guarantee neither personal nor agricultural security,” he told farmers at a recent rally in Trujillo state.

Nineteen million Venezuelans will go to the polls on October 7th, in what will be the country’s 16th nationwide vote since Mr Chávez was sworn into office in 1999.