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.