Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Rebuilding Venezuelan Democracy

SANTIAGO – Excitement, anxious young faces, the sense of a nation’s best and brightest coming together for a noble cause: the scene was an office building in Caracas, Venezuela, in July 2012. But, to a Chilean like me, it could have been Santiago in October 1988. The campaign headquarters of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles feels and looks a lot like the headquarters of the “No” campaign against Chile’s military dictator of a quarter-century ago, Augusto Pinochet.

Back then, very few people outside Chile thought that a ruthless dictator could be removed through the ballot box. But the democratic opposition prevailed in the 1988 plebiscite, and Pinochet had to go.

Today, many in the global chattering classes are similarly skeptical that Venezuela’s political opposition can unseat the demagogic populist Hugo Chávez in the country’s presidential election on October 7. After all, Chávez, who has governed Venezuela since 1999 and is in his third presidential term, maintains an iron grip over much of the country´s media and keeps an open wallet to pay for popular support.

But the buzz in Caracas suggests otherwise. Capriles has mounted an impressive campaign. He still trails Chávez in most polls, but the distance seems to be narrowing.

Of course, Capriles faces formidable obstacles. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch documented the accumulation of executive power and the erosion of human-rights protections in Venezuela. “For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the group’s Americas director. “Today that system is firmly entrenched, and the risks for judges, journalists, and rights defenders are greater than they’ve ever been under Chávez.”

Venezuela’s oldest private television channel, RCTV, was arbitrarily removed from the public airwaves in 2007, and has since been driven off cable TV. Other independent radio and television stations have been regulated or coerced off the air as well. Of the country’s main media outlets, only Globovisión remains critical of Chávez and carries the opposition’s message.

Venezuelans are bombarded by Chávez’s endless speeches on an almost daily basis. According to the Spanish newspaper El País, this year Chávez has already clocked 75 hours and 20 minutes in public addresses, which the country’s radio and television stations are forced to broadcast. To that one must add January’s state-of-the-nation speech, which went on for a record nine hours and 49 minutes – Chávez’s personal record.

With little access to media, the Capriles camp has been forced into an old-fashioned campaign mode. Capriles, a wiry 40-year-old, walks his way through an average of four Venezuelan towns a day. The reception seems more appropriate for a rock star than for a presidential hopeful: the crowds are large, the hugs intense (this is the Caribbean, after all), and the candidate’s shirt often gets torn in a melee of enthusiasm.

To build all of that popular support, Capriles has positioned himself politically far away not only from Chávez, but also from the business elite and the traditional parties that ran Venezuela before Chávez. His center-left message emphasizes two issues: jobs and crime. He did not have to carry out too many surveys of voters to arrive at those priorities.

The official unemployment rate today is 7.9%, but youth unemployment and underemployment are much higher. This is not surprising, given Venezuela’s mediocre growth performance. Since 1999 – and despite very high oil prices – the economy has grown by only 3.2% per year on average. During this period, Latin America as a whole has recorded 4% average annual growth, pulled by fast-growing countries like Peru, where annual GDP has been rising by more than 5.5%.

The crime problem is even worse. Venezuela’s murder rate – at 67 per 100,000 people – is among the world’s highest, and five times what it was before Chávez came to power. By contrast, the murder rate in Brazil is 26 per 100,000, and “only” 18 in Mexico, despite all of that country’s drug-related violence.

Venezuelans deserve better than this. And they may get it if Capriles can unseat Chávez in October. He faces an uphill battle. But so did the democratic forces battling Pinochet. Those who underestimated the power of people’s yearning for freedom and a better life were wrong in 1988. With a bit of luck, they may be wrong again in 2012.

Read more from our "The Return of Hugo Chávez?" Focal Point.

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  1. Commentedjames durante

    It's people like you, Andres, who need to learn to read. None of the comments below sing paeans to Chavez's democratic credentials. He is, it seems to me, a caudillo who at least has the interests of a broad swath of the Venezuelna people in mind. That's the problem; he is controlled by neither the native nor the international elite. So people like Velasco have to make totally bankrupt analogies (Pinochet!).

    "Democracy" and "legitimacy" involve shades of grey. The US has elections and basic protections of rights (acknowledging the increasing security apparatus and surveillance) but is becoming increasingly illegitimate as corporate control of institutions solidifies. Chavez's illegitimacy takes various forms from domination of media to narrowing of opposition political action. But he's no Pinochet. That's the basic point that the other commenters and I have made.

    Again, PS should take this article down.

  2. CommentedAndres Garcia

    It's impressive how confusing are the term "Democracy and Legitimacy": Just for people who don't know the terms "Origin Legitimacy and Exercise Legitimacy"... In order to be a real democrat Rulers have to have both at the same time... The first is obtained through Elections and the Second through the respect for many things like Institutionality, Human Rights (free speech is not saying what you want to, free speech is saying what you want to and the certainty you won't be punished for that), Respect for dissenters, etc.

    What many of the people wrote here about Chavez democratic spirit is a demonstration of how lost they're conceptually speaking.

    Please people, let's manage better the terms in order to comment about Democracy.

  3. CommentedSteven Leighton

    The brute force torture and murder of political opponents is ( I hope) passé here in Latin America as a means to maintain power. It was never employed by the PRI in Mexico and even in regaining power this year the PRI found that buying the media, funnelling laundered cash to buy illegal publicity and votes, mixed with a little strategic intimidation of voters and a little strategic stealing and emptying of ballot boxes was all it took to win the presidency.
    The MEDIA is the most important weapon in modern Latin American politics. Millions of poor people can be pursuaded to vote for a party that does not serve them well.
    Just look at FOX in the USA and the inclination that poor white men there have to vote Republican AGAINST their own best interests.
    For those who are extolling Chavez´s democratic character - you seem to have a very selective memory.

  4. CommentedFelipe Filomeno

    I'm really sorry about this article. Mr. Velasco had offered us more reasonable analyses before. Of course, there are problems in Venezuela under Chavez, but some of the points made by Velasco bend basic facts and logics for the sake of ideology.

    A statistical analysis made by Washington-based CEPR concluded that the control of the media by Chávez is a myth (see at http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/who-dominates-the-media-in-venezuela).

    Also, the existence of elections (considered free by international observers) and the absence of torture and murder of opponents makes the comparison with Pinochet unsustainable and demagogic.

  5. CommentedKevin Lim

    I agree that the comparison with Pinochet is overblown, but so are some of the hymns being sung here to defend Chavez's honor. Chavez is a flawed leader with some authoritarian tendencies in the way he is seeking to concentrate political and economic power into his own hands. But at the same time, he commands a real democratic mandate because unlike his predecessors he backed his talk of helping the poor with real concrete action that has had a real effect on their lives. Are his policies economically sustainable? Probably not in the long run. Are his political machinations to concentrate power dangerous? Absolutely. But lets not sell his achievements short either.

  6. Commentedjames durante

    How many has Chavez disappeared, tortured, executed and buried under stadiums? Oh, that was Pinochet. And that would have been the likely fate of Chavez supporters had the CIA-backed coup against him succeeded as it did against Allende.

    Chavez maintains a grip on "much" of the media, meaning that there is sufficient free press to allow savage and dishonest attacks against him. Compare this with Pinochet. Oh, and Velasco notes that it may be possible for Capriles to win an election, another feature missing under Pinochet.

    We are used to the religious fervor with which economists embrace capitalism. It seems to be a prerequisite for the pundits on this site. But morons like Velasco go an unacceptable step further. They disgrace the memories of those who died the most gruesome deaths under one of the worst tyrants of the capitalist world order.

    If PS had any decency they would remove this article.

    1. CommentedAndres Garcia

      "Origin Legitimacy and Exercise Legitimacy"... In order to be a real democrat Rulers have to have both at the same time... The first is obtained through Elections and the Second through the respect for many things like Institutionality, Human Rights (free speech is not saying what you want to, free speech is saying what you want to and having the certainty you won't be punished for that), Respect for dissenters, etc.

  7. CommentedMartin Joyce

    The 'demagogic populist' has won three Presidential elections with (successively) 56%, 60% and 63% of the vote. The democratic will of the Venezuelan people appears to have been expressed quite clearly. Mr Velasco is entitled not to like this, but the comparison with Pinochet is dishonest, misleading and disingenuous. The far greater threat to Venezuelan democracy would appear to come from those elements who attempted to depose the democratically elected President in a coup in 2002.

    If one wants to make associations with Pinochet, one would be better advised to look to a man whose birth centennial is being marked today, Milton Friedman. I'd also suggest to Mr Velasco that a large measure of Chavez's appeal to the poor and working people of Venezuela (as with other leftist Latin American leaders) is that he is their bulwark against the type of untrammelled neo-liberalism which was first instituted in Chile under Pinochet (with a significant measure of assistance from Friedman).

  8. CommentedAndres Garcia

    You have to remember Eladio Aponte Aponte, a former member of the closest circle of pimps of the judiciary power who employed his authority against opponents to the regime. This man, in conjuction with the highest powers in armed forces dealt with drugs under Chavez consentment. And it's been proven.

    This kind of obstacles Capriles must defeat, the corruption of the state.

  9. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    The comparison between Chavez and Pinochet is shameful!
    Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected popular leader who has defended his country against foreign exploitation. Pinochet was a crooked mass-murderer who sold his country to foreign and domestic theft.
    A big lie shouted loudly does not become true. It does discredit the source.

    1. CommentedAndres Garcia

      "Origin Legitimacy and Exercise Legitimacy"... In order to be a real democrat Rulers have to have both at the same time... The first is obtained through Elections and the Second through the respect for many things like Institutionality, Human Rights (free speech is not saying what you want to, free speech is saying what you want to and having the certainty you won't be punished for that), Respect for dissenters, etc.

  10. CommentedSteven Leighton

    "He faces an uphill battle. But so did the democratic forces battling Pinochet."
    The level of sophistication of Chavez's oppression is I suspect of a much greater magnitude than that faced in Chile. If the overwhelming sophistication of the oppression isn't enough to guarantee a Chavez victory he will no doubt turn to assassination or threats of assassination of opposition candidates and their loved ones. Next, if necessary, massive vote count fraud etc. etc. After all, Venezuela has petroleum.

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