- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008




The drive to Caracas from Maiquetia Airport is dangerous at night and unsightly by day. Thugs - often dressed as police - stop vehicles, rob passengers and steal their cars. Surrounding hills hold a seemingly impossible number of squalid ranchos - shack-filled ghettos - home to a million or more desperately poor Venezuelan peasants, who have become President Hugo Chavez’s core support.

Caracas can seem hardly changed from 10 years ago. There are 5 times more vehicles on the same streets, now hellishly potholed. But standing on one of the middle-upper class hills in Chuao district overlooking the city, the capital looks like the energetic, exciting city of yore. It isn’t.

Caracas is on a seemingly unstoppable downward slide. The invading poor have endangered the city of 6 million as never before. The wealthy (those not seeking refuge in southern Florida, Colombia or Spain) lead a semi-surrealistic existence reflecting a sense of smiling through the ever-increasing gloom, plus a devout dream that somehow, someday Venezuela will be rid of Mr. Chavez, socialism and insecurity.

During two weeks, I conducted 37 interviews and attended a major conference sponsored by the premier economic, political and social analytical group, Veneconomia.com. All but three individuals believed the opposition should essentially wait out Mr. Chavez’s demise.

The coming state and municipal elections on Nov. 23 will be an indicator of how low the country and its president has sunk in nearly 10 years of autocratic rule. Mr. Chavez is doing so much damage to himself and the economy, most say, that he will self-destruct. They simply do not believe he and his Cuban and Iranian allies can create an iron-fisted police state.

Electoral prospects for the opposition indeed look positive. Most professional observers believe anti-Chavez candidates will take eight to 13 of the country’s 23 governorships, plus hundreds of mayoral contests. They then look to legislative elections in 2010 as the next step in an inexorable decline of the former lieutenant colonel whose approval rating currently hovers just above 50 percent. Once Mr. Chavez loses a large number of seats in the National Assembly, they believe the finish will come when he runs for re-election in 2012.

While patience can clearly be a virtue, the attitude seems to a visitor more like a misty, delusory political dream these days in Caracas. Consider:

Overall inflation is running at 36 percent and is heading for 50 percent.

Inflation of consumables - the stuff on which people subsist - is 50 percent and heading for 100 percent.

Insecurity is the greatest concern of Caracenos as their city sports the highest murder rate - 132 per 100,000 inhabitants - virtually in the world, with the majority of killings affecting the poor.

Corruption is so rampant the average citizen must usually pay from 100 to 300 bolivares ($25 to $75) to renew the mandatory cedula identity card.

Nonprivileged citizens express a weary, fear-ridden sense of what lies ahead. One man said, “The cost of food, when it is available, rises daily. We can’t keep up. I fear for my family, and not just for their safety.”

The political opposition remains in dismal disarray. Aging politicians, remnants of Venezuela’s nearly 50 years of democratic rule, stand for little else than a return to his/her share of the spoils that Mr. Chavez is hoarding to himself, his military, socialist and Cuban cohorts.

Fortunately, the professional/intellectual side of the opposition, plus committed cadres of young office-seekers, have injected a level of fresh thinking and selflessness to the process.

One significant advance has been an agreement among most opposition forces to run a single candidate for every office. However, the unity candidate is often an old line hack, with limited integrity and less vision.

The tide, however, could be turning. Apart from the old-timers, significant numbers of opposition candidates in the 30 and 40 percentiles are contesting the election.

Stalin Gonzalez, 35, is running for the mayoralty of Libertador, one of five municipalities comprising metro Caracas. A leader of the student uprisings that defeated Mr. Chavez’s constitutional reforms in December 2007, Mr. Gonzalez and thousands of vigilant comrades were a key factor in blocking Mr. Chavez’s effort to grant himself unlimited presidential terms, among other egregious affronts to democracy.

Perhaps the leading example of fresh opposition leadership - and determination - is the mayor of Chacao, most dynamic of greater Caracas’ municipalities. Leopoldo Lopez, 37, campaigns tirelessly nationwide for candidates, despite being banned from competing for the mayoralty of the country’s capital conurbation.

In August, Mr. Lopez was polling 65 percent versus incumbent Chavista Mayor Aristobulo Izturiz, so the governing authority disqualified him from running on false corruption charges. On his way to an opposition rally he told me, “We won’t give up. But it is not enough to say how bad the government is. We must develop a solid and meaningful program for Venezuela. The opposition must give the people positive reasons for returning the country to a renewed and revitalized democracy.”

Clearly in line with Mr. Lopez’s thinking, Oscar Schemel, who heads strategic planning and polling firm Hinterlaces, is forming a representative group of opposition personalities to develop a common vision for Venezuela. The project, called Utopolis, is sorely needed to unify the opposition and also to provide average citizens with a common understanding of what their country can be.

Hugo Chavez is a survivor. Despite megalomania, manic-depression requiring daily doses of lithium and a seemingly endless need to enrich himself and numberless cohorts, he has a powerful charisma, coupled with a sense of when to strike and when to stand down.

Mr. Chavez accepted defeat, “for now.” after leading an unsuccessful 1992 coup (he was the only one of six colonels who failed to overpower his self-assigned target, Miraflores presidential palace). In less than eight years, he had served two years in prison; become the revolutionary torchbearer for the San Paolo Forum, founded by Fidel Castro and Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula; and been elected president of Venezuela.

Similarly, following defeat of his constitutional reforms last year, Mr. Chavez accepted the voters’ verdict “for now” and within less than 10 months promulgated 26 decrees that put into law virtually all the measures that had been popularly defeated.

In the run-up to the Nov. 23 elections, his government has declared hundreds of candidates ineligible on bogus corruption charges and threatened to withhold government financial support from states that elect opposition governors. Observers are certain there will be major efforts to keep elected opposition candidates from being declared winners.

If the anti-Chavistas do as well as predicted, the questions are whether Mr. Chavez will accept the results “for now,” and what will come later.

John R. Thomson recently spent two weeks in Caracas, Venezuela, assessing economic and political conditions prior to next Sunday’s elections.

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