Elections Are Venezuela's Last Chance

Venezuela is mired in a dangerous stalemate. President Hugo Chávez clings to power despite the obvious failings of his government: severe economic deterioration and dangerous political polarization. The opposition, tainted by their botched coup of April 2002, now seeks to force Chávez from office through a costly general strike.

Both sides justify their intransigence with one-sided interpretations. His sympathizers glorify Chávez as a defender of the poor besieged by a selfish, coup-plotting elite. His fiercest opponents demonize Chávez as an autocrat pursuing a Cuban-style revolution and destroying democracy. Both interpretations are flawed.

The Chávez government has not helped Venezuela's poor in any significant way. On the contrary, his belligerent rhetoric and inept governance scared off investors, inciting economic decline and boosting unemployment and poverty. Now Chávez lacks majority backing even among the poor.

The opposition comprises most of Venezuela's organized civil society, not only business, but also trade unions, professional associations, and NGOs. So Venezuela's polarization does not pit "the poor" against "the oligarchy," but a populist against civil society.