PERDUE: The last election in Venezuela?

Another victory could mean Chavez remains president for life

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On Dec. 28, 2006, Hugo Chavez played a joke on the radio for Dia de los Inocentes, the Latin American equivalent of April Fool’s Day. He announced that he was tired of being president and was going to resign. After a short pause, he impishly shouted, ”Ha ha! Gotcha!” Almost four years later, many in Venezuela feel as if the joke is still on them as elections become less of a civic exercise and more of a tool of the regime to cement its incremental autocracy.

When the New York Times and CNN reported recently that Venezuela is now more violent than Iraq, Hugo Chavez responded in a newspaper article by blaming the previous administration. Mr. Chavez has been in office for 11 years. With important elections looming Sunday, it would seem more prudent to announce a new anti-crime initiative or at least to feign concern for the country’s escalating crime wave.

Instead, Chavez regime officials have been threatening the opposition. “Our revolution is peaceful, but it’s also armed,” warned former mayor of Caracas and Chavez supporter Freddy Bernal. “If the bourgeois brings out its weapons again, we’ll bring out ours as well. Don’t forget it.” Aristobulo Isturiz, a Chavista campaign coordinator, was quoted as saying, “Either we liquidate them or they liquidate us.”

Notwithstanding the militant Bolshevik rhetoric, these statements betray an unease on the part of Chavez supporters over Sunday’s election outcome, which could explain some of the electoral machinations that are being reported out of Caracas. It would seem a counterintuitive campaign strategy, with Venezuelan violence getting worldwide news coverage, unless one were suitably confident of an election victory.

In late August, as polls showed that escalating violence had cut his approval rating 12 points, Mr. Chavez’s weekly chat show, “Hello President!” went on hiatus until after the elections. Insiders say it was to prevent the loquacious caudillo from further inflaming opposition voters, though Mr. Chavez himself told viewers it was so they could watch the Women’s World Cup baseball tournament taking place in Caracas. During the tournament, a female player from Hong Kong was hit in the leg by a stray bullet fired inside the stadium. Her team withdrew and immediately flew home. The incident underscored the out-of-control situation in Venezuela - just the latest disaster in the oil-rich country’s ever-deteriorating experiment with “21st-century socialism.”

As Sunday’s elections have drawn closer, Mr. Chavez has taken to blaming “capitalist culture” for the uptick in violence, a rather counterintuitive claim, as the murder rate has nearly tripled since he took office in 1999 and scores of businesses have either fled or been taken over by the government. And though the opposition has, after many years of disarray, formed a unity ticket for this election, Mr. Chavez already has rigged provincial election laws to increase greatly the number of representatives in areas that are far less populated but are much more Chavez-friendly.

Elections in the Chavez era have often been flash points for violence as well as a means to marginalize his opposition. But polls are showing that Mr. Chavez finally may be losing support among the poor, who are more directly affected by the rampant violence. (Roughly 96 percent of all murder victims are poor and lower middle class.)

A poll released by the Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21 on June 4 revealed that Mr. Chavez has a 37 percent approval rating, while 56 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of his performance. Sixty percent of Venezuelans think Mr. Chavez has enriched himself in office and is responsible for the mismanagement of the country. A whopping 66 percent of Venezuelans said they do not want the kind of country Mr. Chavez wants to establish - a stunning statistic when even rural garbage trucks have “Socialist Beautification Project” painted on them (with no attempt at sarcasm).

Only if opposition candidates capture a simple majority in the congress will Sunday’s elections have any effect on Mr. Chavez’s rule by decree. (He does not stand for office again until 2012.) And, should the opposition not capture a majority, many speculate that this very well could be the last election in Chavez-controlled Venezuela.

In his weekly TV program, Mr. Chavez has told his audience that the revolutionary process has three stages: 10 years for the first, 10 for the second and another 10 for the third. He recently told supporters, “I am 55 years old and have been president for 11 years. During the next 11 years, I promise to take care of myself a bit more because, God willing, I’ll be 66 years old and 22 years as president. And for the following 11 years, I don’t even want to think about it since then I’ll be 77 years old and 33 as president. Don’t you think that would be a long time?” Indeed.

Hugo Chavez so far has withstood a coup and numerous elections, both fair and foul, with no sign of letting go of power. In a best-case scenario, Sunday’s elections potentially could tap the brakes on the latest experiment in romanticized tyranny in Latin America. But optimism is a luxury in today’s Venezuela, where many feel that their part in elections are simply as pantomimists in a Potemkin democracy, playing their parts so that far-off elites can continue to cite elections for their apathy toward a creeping dictatorship.

Jon B. Perdue is author of “The War of All the People” (Potomac Books), a forthcoming book about the security threat posed by Iran and Venezuela.

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